An Iberville Parish jury delivered a $117 million verdict Wednesday against Acadian Ambulance Service in an accident case in which a woman was left paralyzed and with permanent brain damage, according to court documents.
The victim, Whitley Lacey, of Plaquemine, who was 21, was seven months pregnant and had called the ambulance on Dec. 29, 2010, when she felt stomach pains, according to news reports at the time.
The ambulance driver, Michael Averrette, became distracted on the way to the hospital and crashed the ambulance into a sugar-cane truck, State Police had said.
Court documents show the ambulance was traveling at about 40 mph when it crashed.
Doctors delivered Lacey’s baby via Caesarean section while she was in a coma that would last three months after the crash, said Tony Clayton, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
When she awoke from the coma, Lacey could not talk and was paralyzed from the neck down, except for the use of one arm, Clayton said.
Through speech therapy, Lacey has regained some speaking abilities, Clayton said, but still has a long way to go.
Lacey’s mother, Peggy Ross, sued the ambulance company on her daughter’s behalf, Clayton said. He added Lacey will need 24-hour care for the rest of her life.
The plaintiffs argued the baby, now 18 months old, has displayed signs of developmental delay as a result of the crash, Clayton said.
However, a doctor who testified for the defense said the baby was “within normal range,” Clayton said.
The jury designated $2.7 million to the baby’s health care costs, with the remaining $114.3 million going toward Lacey’s health care costs over the next 50 years.
“This was a horrible tragedy,” said Allyson Pharr, a spokeswoman for Acadian Ambulance Service, in an email.
“While it is extremely difficult to put a value on a case such as this or ponder the fairness of an award amount,” Pharr wrote, “we do hope that the damage amount ultimately awarded will be used to provide Ms. Lacey with quality care and ensure that her children will not forego any opportunities that they may otherwise have had were it not for the injuries their mother sustained in this accident.”
Pharr indicated the company plans to appeal the verdict.
Averrette told the jury he took full responsibility for the crash, Clayton said.
Averrette first testified he had dropped his key and was distracted for a split-second, but under cross-examination, said his attention could have been diverted from the road for up to 17 seconds, Clayton said.
Clayton said there was court testimony about a recent switch in Averrette’s prescribed medications that might have been a possible factor in Averrette’s inattention.
Even though Acadian Ambulances periodically drug-tests its employees, Clayton said, the defense claimed they were unaware of the driver’s prescriptions.
“They should have known he was on it,” Clayton said.