NTL member Ryan Zehl obtains $23.5M settlement in head-on fatal wreck

Accident with two carsNational Trial Lawyers Top 100 and Top 40 Under 40 member Ryan Zehl secured a $23.5 million settlement in March for the family of a woman killed in a head-on accident in Brazoria County, Texas. Mr. Zehl was assisted by Matt Martin and Eric Allen of his firm, Zehl and Associates of Houston, Texas.

On July 20, 2017, Christina Burley, 24, a homemaker, was driving a compact car south on County Road 2611, a two-lane road in Brazoria County. Her husband, James Ray Burley, 47, a trucker, was a passenger. Larry Wayne Sassin was traveling north in a large pickup truck. Traffic ahead of Sassin slowed, and Sassin swerved left. He and the Burleys collided head-on at about 65 mph. Mr. Burley sustained severe injuries to his head, colon, leg and other areas of his body. Ms. Burley’s injuries were fatal. 

Mr. and Mrs. Burley were taken by Life-Flight to the hospital. Mrs. Burley was pronounced dead on arrival, about an hour after the accident. She was survived by her husband and her mother, plaintiff Alberta Roberts. Mr. Burley was in a coma for about seven days and was in the hospital from July 20 to Aug. 30. He sustained about 23 broken bones and a colon injury, which required a colostomy. He also claimed a moderate traumatic brain injury. His head injuries included a subarachnoid hemorrhage, left cervical ICA (internal carotid artery) injury, left orbital floor fracture, Le Fort I fracture, Le Fort II fracture, mandibular fracture, maxillary sinus fracture and chin lacerations.

Injuries to the rest of his body included a right clavicle fracture, right scapula fracture, sternum fracture, fractures of ribs 2 through 8, left pneumothorax, pulmonary contusions, spinal fractures, multiple small-bowel avulsions, traumatic hernia, multiple mesenteric hematomas, aortic dissection, severed sigmoid colon, complex comminuted and displaced open left femur fracture, comminuted fractures of the left third and fourth metatarsals and left cuboid fracture.

Mr. Burley had numerous surgeries within days of the accident. On the date of the accident, his surgeries included exploratory laparotomy and resection of devascularized segments of the small intestine and colon. Surgeries the next day included irrigation and debridement of the clavicle and femur fractures, left knee arthrotomy, exploratory laparotomy, creation of colostomy and creation of small bowel anastomoses. His surgery on July 24 included open reduction and internal fixation of the clavicle fracture, and his surgery on July 27 included open reduction and internal fixation of the femur fracture. On July 28, a feeding tube and thoracostomy tube were placed by doctors. He also underwent open reduction and internal fixation of the left first, second and third tarsometatarsal joints and percutaneous pin fixation of the left fourth and fifth tarsometatarsal joints. The colostomy was reversed on March 5, 2018.

At the time of settlement, Mr. Burley claimed ongoing pain in his back, neck, and both knees and an inability to walk without a cane or walker. He also required assistance getting in and out of the bath and shower. He also claimed impairment of short-term memory, executive functioning and inability to work as a truck driver or most anything else, and speech impairment.

Mr. Burley also claimed depression and regular emotional outbreaks over the loss of his wife and the profound changes in his physical abilities and overall quality of life.
He moved in with his brother, who was still caring for him when the case resolved. Mr. Burley claimed that he would be hiring a home health aide soon to supervise and care for him 24 hours a day.

His paid or incurred medical bills were $1,123,000, and he claimed a life care plan of $6.1 million. His lost earnings and lost earning capacity were still undetermined when the case was resolved.

Mr. Burley and Ms. Burley’s estate sued Sassin and Sassin’s employer, Johnson Supply and Equipment Corp. The lawsuit alleged that Sassin was negligent in the operation of his vehicle, that Johnson Supply was vicariously liable for his actions on a theory of respondeat superior, and that Johnson was negligent and grossly negligent in its hiring, training, retention and supervision of Sassin. 

The plaintiffs alleged that (1) Sassin was not paying attention and, as a result, did not notice that traffic ahead had slowed until it was too late, (2) that Sassin should have swerved into a grassy field to the right of the roadway, rather than left into oncoming traffic, (3) that Sassin, who was a counter salesman, had never received any training and had no experience driving company vehicles and, therefore, should not have been permitted to drive Johnson Supply’s delivery trucks.

The defendants generally denied the allegations. The case settled for $23.5 million before any expert depositions and before any experts had been designated by the defense.