22-year-old an ‘innocent victim’ in deadly collision. Her life was worth millions, jury decides

A Columbus jury has awarded $27 million to the mother of a Buena Vista woman fatally injured in a 2017 tractor-trailer collision.

The Muscogee State Court case ended around lunchtime Wednesday with the jury’s verdict of $22 million for the value of Cindy Tran Huynh’s life and $5 million for the suffering she endured.

The award goes to her mother Hiuy Huynh, her surviving parent and executor of her estate. Held liable for the truck driver’s negligence were his employer, MDV SpartanNash, and its liability insurer, XL Insurance America Inc.

The accident happened Jan. 26, 2017, when truck driver George Hooks was headed west on Macon Road in a 2012 Cascadia Freightliner, en route to his employer’s terminal at 6175 Technology Parkway in Columbus.

Huynh was traveling in the opposite direction, riding a 2009 Yamaha FZ6R east on Macon Road as she and the truck neared Technology Parkway at the same time, around 1:15 in the afternoon.

Both Hooks and Huynh had a green light when they reached the intersection, but Huynh had the right of way, as she was headed straight and Hooks was turning left in front of her on the five-lane road, and should have yielded, police determined.

“There was nothing that … Cindy Tran Huynh could have or should have done under the circumstances to avoid or minimize the collision,” said the suit filed Feb. 10, 2017.

The truck driver later acknowledged the error was his alone, the suit said: “Cindy Tran Huynh was an innocent victim, as admitted by defendant Hooks during his deposition…. Hooks has admitted the crash was 100 percent his fault.”

Representing Huynh’s mother was Alan Hamilton of the Shiver Hamilton law firm of Atlanta. Representing the defendants was Grant Smith of Dennis, Corry, Smith & Dixon, also of Atlanta.

The case

Hooks at the time was 61 years old. Huynh was 22, a Marion County High School graduate who had served four years in the Army before enrolling in international studies at Columbus State University, intending to join the Marines and go to the corps’ officer candidate school, her mother’s attorney said.

She was a first-generation American citizen from a family that settled in Marion County after leaving Vietnam. She was the oldest of three children, and among the top students in her high school class, the attorney said.

The day of the crash, she had just left a gym with a bookbag on her back as she traveled down Macon Road, Hamilton said.

Coming the other way, Hooks had a clear view of the road ahead for at least 1,000 feet, but did not stop before turning left onto Technology Parkway, the attorney said, adding the truck’s satellite tracking system enabled investigators to “plot the turn,” which lasted three seconds.

Huynh hit the rear of the trailer. Plotting the turn showed that a half-second before impact, she would have been “staring down the middle of the trailer,” Hamilton said.

Court filings included a witness’ account of the crash:

Richard Parsons said that as Huynh neared the tractor-trailer, she swerved into the left lane, “popped up immediately from her crouch” on the bike, held the brake and skidded. She almost avoided the impact by veering left, but clipped the trailer’s back end, he said.

Parsons called 911 and ran to her, according to court record.

She died in the hospital at 1:55 p.m. the next day. Coroner Buddy Bryan said her cause of death was listed as “blunt-force trauma to the torso and extremities.”

Police determined she was not speeding before the collision, he said.

The trial

The trucking company and its insurer eventually acknowledged their liability for Hooks’ actions, but maintained the $25 million the woman’s mother demanded was excessive. Both parties asked for a jury trial.

The defense case began “unraveling” after Hooks acknowledged he was at fault, Hamilton said. Admitting liability while focusing on the amount of damages was a way to “take all the heat out of the case,” he said — to argue that $25 million for a “split-second mistake” was “way past what was reasonable.”

He said Smith, representing the defendants, told jurors the damages were not worth $15 million, $10 million or $8 million, but some lesser amount. Smith declined comment Thursday.

The lawsuit alleged Hooks’ negligence included driving too fast for conditions, distracted driving, failing to yield while turning left, failing to keep a proper lookout, failing to exercise due care and failing to stop on time.

Hamilton said the defense initially claimed a pickup truck blocked Hooks’ view of the oncoming motorcycle, and he could not have yielded to a vehicle he could not see.

But not watching for approaching vehicles also is negligent, Hamilton said: “You not only have to yield. You have to keep a proper lookout.”

The lawsuit sought “the full value of Cindy Tran Huynh’s life” and damages for her “fright, terror, pain, suffering, funeral and burial and medical expenses.” Her medical and burial expenses totaled $12,253.

The trial was held before Muscogee State Court Judge Ben Richardson. Attorneys picked a jury Monday, presented evidence Tuesday, and had closing arguments Wednesday morning, Hamilton said. The jury reached its verdict within 30 minutes.

Hamilton and other attorneys said the amount awarded likely ranks among the largest Muscogee County verdicts involving a traffic accident.

After the verdict, both sides arranged to preclude any further proceedings by ending the case with a “confidential agreement,” the terms of which will not be disclosed, Hamilton said: “There will be no appeal.”