Jury awards $89.6 million to Texas family represented by local attorney

Zollie Steakley of Waco (second from left) served as co-lead counsel in the lawsuit. (Courtesy photo)
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) A Houston jury has awarded $89.6 million to a Houston family represented by a local attorney stemming from a deadly collision in 2014 involving a student truck driver that left a boy dead and a 12-year-old girl so severely injured she’ll require round-the-clock care for the rest of her life.

Zollie C. Steakley of Harrison Davis Steakley Morrison Jones in Waco served as co-lead counsel in the case with Eric Penn of the Penn Law Firm in Jacksonville during the six-week trial.

The suit against Werner Enterprises, Inc., one of the largest trucking companies in the U.S. stems from a crash on Dec. 30, 2014 on Interstate 20 in Ector County.

Jennifer Blake and her children Brianna, Nathan and Zachery were eastbound on the highway in a 2003 Ford F350 pickup truck in icy conditions when the pickup veered across the median and into the path of the Werner Freightliner driven by Shiraz A. Ali.

Zachery Blake, 7, died in the crash.

Brianna Blake, 12, suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her a quadriplegic who requires 24-hour care for the remainder of her life.

Jennifer Blake and her older son, Nathan, also suffered extensive brain injuries.

“The tragic losses the Blake family has endured since the crash are heart-breaking. Nothing will ever return what has been lost, but justice has been served,” Steakley said.

The suit alleged that Ali was “driving the Werner truck at unreasonably dangerous speeds in the westbound left hand lane” despite the icy conditions.

The suit alleged that Ali, a student driver, was traveling at a speed of more than 60 miles per hour and that Werner failed to provide him with such safety equipment as an outside thermometer or CB radio, which would have alerted him to the dangerous road conditions.

The suit alleged that Werner directed Ali to take the I-20 route despite the icy conditions, rather than a safer route because the load he was hauling was a priority deliver due the next day in California.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys maintained that Werner “displayed systematic disregard for basic safety policies across the organization and engaged in irresponsible training mechanisms for new student drivers.”

The company, they said, hires about 4,000 new drivers a year with no prior experience.

“Werner’s lack of basic safety systems and its inadequate training processes for student drivers, combined with its business model of assigning student drivers on expedited deliveries, is creating a highly dangerous and unsustainable dynamic on U.S. Highways,” Penn said.

The company said it planned to appeal the judgement.

The accident had “tragic results,” Executive Vice President Nathan Meisgeier said in a statement, but the company maintains that neither it nor its driver did anything wrong, pointing out that the Blakes’ vehicle crossed the median into the lane in which its truck was traveling.

"The Werner driver was traveling well below the posted speed limit, did not lose control of his tractor-trailer, and even brought the unit to a controlled stop after the impact," Meisgeier said.

"As a result, no other motorists were involved in a secondary accident. If an accident like this is the fault of the driver who was hit by the out of control vehicle, think about what that means for every motorist on the roads."