Jury: No cash for bus crash into car door
A six-person jury refused Wednesday to award Aspenite Erik Shelton damages for his accident with a Roaring Fork Transit Agency bus nearly four years ago.
Jurors unanimously concluded that both Shelton and the RFTA bus driver were negligent in the accident – Shelton received 75 percent of the blame and bus driver Clemeth Skiles, 25 percent. But, after hearing two and a half days of testimony, the jury was not compelled to award Shelton any damages for personal injury or economic loss.
On Feb. 1, 1996, Shelton’s open car door was hit by a RFTA bus while Shelton was parked on Aspen’s Main Street in front of the Miners Building. Shelton was pulled from his vehicle in the collision and subsequently taken to Aspen Valley Hospital.
In closing arguments yesterday, RFTA attorney Chad Neuens told jurors that culpability lay with a “decision by Mr. Shelton to open his door into moving traffic.
“There’s no dispute that without the door open, this accident would not have happened,” said Neuens. Shelton, he pointed out, violated an Aspen ordinance that reads: “No person shall open the door of a motor vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so.”
In response, one of Shelton’s attorneys appealed to the jury to weigh the “rather innocuous nature of opening a door 12 inches” against the “comparable negligence” of the operator of “a huge bus hurtling down the road … driving what could be a deadly weapon.”
“What’s the message to RFTA?” asked co-counsel Gary Sandblom in his closing remarks. “Let’s do this every day? Let’s put people in danger every day?” Damage claims There were two related but separate issues the jury was asked to consider in the case of Shelton vs. RFTA: Who was to blame and how much Shelton was injured by the incident.
Shelton’s attorneys did not ask for a specific amount in damages.
However, their expert witness, Dr. Donald Vogenthaler, testified on Wednesday that Shelton could lose from $280,000 to $400,000 during the course of an employment lifespan due to the back injuries he sustained in 1996.
In Vogenthaler’s estimation, Shelton’s employment prospects were significantly impaired by his physical limitations. He is unable to lift heavy objects, stand for long periods of time or drive in extended stretches, according to testimony presented during the three-day trial in District Court. Vogenthaler also maintained that Shelton’s working lifespan would be shortened by the injuries stemming from the RFTA accident.
But RFTA’s witness, vocational specialist Patrick Renfro, countered that even with his injuries, Shelton is still eligible for 90 percent of the jobs in the American work force.
Renfro contended that both before and after the accident, Shelton was not close to meeting his employment potential.
Given Shelton’s professed interests in business and real estate, Renfro testified that Shelton is currently qualified to earn the $34,000 salary of a middle manager in the hospitality industry. Or, if he obtained a real estate broker’s license, Shelton could make the $52,000 median wage of Pitkin County broker, Renfro said.
In the last five years, Shelton reported annual earnings of between $3,976 to $5,000 from part-time work.
“[Shelton’s] not vocationally impaired, he’s just not trying,” argued Neuens.
Though jurors, after two hours of deliberation, found RFTA 25 percent liable for the collision, they declined to award damages for Shelton’s alleged economic loss.
Jurors also chose not to award damages for any physical injury resulting from the mishap.
Shelton estimated that from the time of the incident to the present, he has accrued about $38,000 in medical bills – from doctor visits, laser surgery and physical therapy.
Most of the cost was paid for by Shelton’s insurance company. But his attorney told the jury in closing arguments that only $12,000 remained in the policy to treat what could be a permanent injury. Appeal uncertain Immediately following Wednesday’s verdict, the future of the case remained uncertain.
Shelton’s lead counsel, Robert Francis, said it was “too soon to say” if an appeal would be made.
RFTA driver Skiles was hesitant to declare an outright victory.
“For me it’s not necessarily over,” said the 11-year RFTA veteran, who has no plans of changing his vocation.
Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned, said RFTA General Manager Dan Blankenship, who hopes people will exercise more caution in the future.
“If you’re driving in your lane and someone opens a door into the lane, there really isn’t a whole lot you can do,” Blankenship said. “It sounds pretty basic, but you always want to look both ways before stepping into traffic.”
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Looking for alternative to I-70 closures, truckers are ignoring numerous warning signs to attempt the narrow, treacherous road that goes over Independence Pass east of Aspen.