May 28–WEST PALM BEACH — Hours after a Palm Beach County jury awarded a teen roughly $15 million for the loss of his father in a 2013 crash on Interstate 95, members of the panel late Friday stepped outside the courtroom, grabbed the orphaned youth and hugged him tightly.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” jury forewoman Carolyn Kern told 19-year-old Tyler Letterman and his grandmother, Susan, as she wrapped her arms around them.
The verdict that came after roughly 90 minutes of deliberation at the end of a nearly two-week trial was complicated both emotionally and legally.
After agreeing that National Truck Center was responsible for the crash that killed 41-year-old single father Werner Letterman, jurors were set to go home. But, attorneys representing the Miami-based company that built the pumper truck the Lake Worth-area man was driving claimed the verdict was flawed. The jury, they argued, wrongly blamed the truck modification company for defects in a tire that it didn’t produce.
After nearly an hour of discussions, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Edward Artau agreed. He ordered the jury to reconsider its verdict.
Minutes later, the jury returned with a revised decision. Instead of holding National Truck Center 100 percent responsible for the crash that began when a tire on Letterman’s Mr. Rooter truck blew out, it held it 95 percent responsible for the crash. It assigned 5 percent of the blame to Shandong Linglong Tyre Co.
Since the Chinese-based company reached a confidential settlement with the Lettermans before the trial began, it can’t be forced to pay any additional money.
The jury’s decision reduced the amount Tyler will receive from $15.5 million to $14.7 million. But neither Tyler, his grandmother nor their attorneys voiced dismay.
“God was with us the whole way,” Tyler said, stroking a tattoo on his arm that he got to honor his father’s memory. “Our prayers were answered.”
“It doesn’t change anything, but it does help,” said a teary-eyed 71-year-old Susan Letterman, looking exhausted after a marathon court session that began at 8:30 a.m. and concluded after 9 p.m.
Attorney Douglas Barnes, who represented the family-owned trucking company, indicated he planned to appeal.
Lawyers representing the Lettermans said they would likely appeal, too, in hopes of reinstating the jury’s original verdict. But even with the last-minute snafu, they said they were ecstatic.
“We’re extremely pleased that the jury vindicated Werner Letterman and validated what really happened in the crash,” said attorney Hampton Keen. “We hope it prevents other catastrophes like this from happening.”
Jurors said the key to their decision was testimony from an engineer who said modifications National Truck Center made to the truck caused the crash that claimed Letterman’s life. Converting a tractor-trailer to a pumper truck made the modified vehicle unstable and impossible to control once the tire blew out, testified G. Bryant Buchner, president of Tallahassee-based Quest Engineering and Failure Analysis.
“On the day of the accident it was basically unsteerable in my opinion,” he told jurors last week. “I can tell you he tried to apply the brakes and steer the truck but it didn’t respond.”
Kern and other jurors said Buchner’s testimony convinced them that National Truck had produced a fatally flawed machine that was dangerous.
“The plaintiff’s engineer presented overwhelming data that the systems weren’t balanced,” Kern said. “Something was ready to fail and all it took was a tire blowout to make it happen.”
Barnes, who represented truck company owner Benito Vera, produced his own expert who disputed those claims. His engineering expert testified that his 13-year-old could have controlled the truck after the tire exploded as Letterman was nearing 45th Street on I-95 two days after Christmas.
Further, Barnes told jurors in closing arguments, the truck had repeatedly passed Florida Department of Transportation Department inspections. A prior owner had no trouble with it, he said.
While Barnes insisted National Truck did nothing wrong, at most, he said the jury should award Tyler $1 million for the loss of his father.
Keen countered that the truck company made no effort to make sure the pumper truck was safe. “They failed to do an engineering systems analysis and that’s why it was defective and that’s why Werner Letterman was unreasonably killed,” he told jurors in closing arguments.
The loss was devastating to Tyler, who now lives in Merritt Island with his grandmother. His mother left shortly after he was born. But Werner Letterman more than made up for it. He embraced fatherhood and other kids in their Lake Worth-area neighborhood, Tyler testified.
“He was Tyler’s entire world. He was his mom, his dad, cook, cleaner, confidante, discipliner,” Keen told jurors in closing arguments. “He was Tyler’s North Star. He was everything to Tyler.”
When Tyler fell in love with baseball, his father did, too. He signed up as a coach for his son’s teams. He never missed a practice, game or tournament, Tyler testified.
Together, the father and son dreamed Tyler would use his natural ability as a pitcher to become the first person in his family to go to college and possibly play in the majors. When his father died, Tyler said those dreams died with him.
After transferring from Santaluces High School to Jupiter High School he said he stopped playing baseball when he looked up in the stands and realized his father wasn’t there. “What’s the point?” he said he asked himself.
But while Tyler missed out on the college baseball scholarship he once hoped to earn, jurors and his grandmother said they hope he uses the money from the lawsuit to accomplish at least half of the almost forgotten dream.
As they hugged him, jurors said they hoped Tyler would go to college. Standing nearby, clutching a Bible, his grandmother agreed.
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