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Couple in Fiery Crash Win $6-Million Verdict

Caltrans is penalized for taking too long to install a median barrier on California 14.

March 13, 2004|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

A jury awarded nearly $6 million Friday to a Granada Hills couple who barely survived a fiery head-on collision, a verdict that penalized Caltrans for delaying installation of a highway median barrier.

The Lancaster Superior Court jury awarded Stacy and Rodney Cornette $3.3 million in punitive damages and $2.4 million in actual damages, such as pain, suffering and lost income. The verdict is believed to be one of the largest ever against the California Department of Transportation in a car accident.

"It sends a message to the state of California that they can't put things on a back burner," said Rodney Cornette, 36. "We're hoping that this will change Caltrans."

In May 1992, the Cornettes were driving on the Antelope Valley Freeway from the Magic Mountain amusement park in Valencia to Palmdale, where they lived at the time. A car in a neighboring lane going in the same direction blew a tire, and the car veered into the Cornettes' Infiniti and pushed it into oncoming traffic.

The couple's car collided with a pickup truck and burst into flames.

Stacy Cornette suffered third-degree burns and lost two fingers. Her face and body are permanently scarred.

"I've had 50 surgeries to date," said Cornette, 34, now a stay-at-home mother.

Her husband, a salesman, suffered brain damage and continues to have memory problems.

In the late 1980s, several serious accidents involved cars that crossed into oncoming traffic along that stretch of California 14 near Mountain Springs Road in the Antelope Valley.

Because of safety concerns and the Antelope Valley's growing population and traffic, the local Caltrans district office recommended in 1989 that a median barrier be built, according to court documents. Between 1989 and the Cornettes' accident in 1992, there were more than 20 accidents along that stretch of the road, according to court documents.

In subsequent years, the project was recommended several more times, but nothing was done. In 1995, construction began, according to court documents, and the median barrier was finished nine months later.

"It took them six years to get this median barrier in. Five years and three months ... was a lot of bureaucracy," the Cornettes' attorney, Larry Grassini, said after the verdict. "You can't allow people to be killed and maimed while you're shuffling paperwork."

Caltrans spokeswoman Judy Gish replied: "We strongly disagree with Mr. Grassini's self-serving characterizations of the facts of the case." She declined to elaborate.

The first judge to hear the Cornettes' case denied their request for a jury trial, ruled in favor of Caltrans and awarded no damages.

The Cornettes appealed, and a state appellate court held that the couple were entitled to a jury trial. The ruling was affirmed by the California Supreme Court.

During the four-week retrial before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Frank Jackson, Caltrans maintained that it had done nothing wrong because such large projects typically take several years.

"Their lawyer argued: 'We may not like it, but that's the way it is,' " Grassini said. "They took an arrogant position on this from the beginning."

The Caltrans trial lawyer, Jill Siciliano, could not be reached.

The jurors found that Caltrans knew about the dangerous condition on that freeway, had sufficient funding and more than enough time to complete the safety improvement before it did, but failed to act reasonably, according to Grassini.

"We should all be mad. Every taxpayer should be mad at Caltrans," Stacy Cornette said. "They were never pressured to do anything in a timely manner."

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