VALPARAISO — A jury deliberated about two hours Thursday before awarding $16.5 million in damages to a motorist who was rear-ended at a traffic light along a local stretch of Ind. 49 by a truck driver who was messaging on his cellphone at the time of the crash.
The damages awarded to John Binkowski include $9.5 million for loss and harm, plus $500,000 from the driver and $6.5 million from Grand Island Express Inc., of Nebraska, as punishment and a deterrent.
"The jury's verdict sends a loud and clear message: Northwest Indiana has no tolerance for reckless and irresponsible truckers and trucking companies," said Binkowski's attorney, Kenneth J. Allen.
Allen had sought $28 million for his client.
"He (Binkowski) wasn't doing anything wrong," Allen said during the closing arguments in the nearly two-week trial.
Attorney Michael Langford, who represented the truck driver, Vincent Holland, and the trucking company agreed that Holland was solely at fault for the crash.
But he pitched a much lower figure to jurors of between $1.6 million and $1.8 million for loss and harm. And while not designating an amount for punitive damages, dismissed the figure called for by Allen, saying the crash was the result of "human failing."
"You know what $10 million would do to them (Grand Island) and their employees?" he said.
Holland has said he was driving on March 7, 2015, at 65 mph along southbound Ind. 49 and did not notice Binkowski's car stopped ahead of him for a red light at County Road 500 North until he was just two car lengths away.
Binkowski's car was pushed through the intersection, and the then-22-year-old had to be extricated from his vehicle and flown by helicopter to a hospital, police said at the time.
Binkowski testified that he had to leave the Army National Guard and end his lifetime ambition of military service because of injuries suffered in the crash. He said the injuries also left him unable to pursue a career in police work or as a railroad conductor.
Binkowski testified he has undergone 15 surgeries and continues to undergo physical and cognitive therapy. He said he suffers from neck pain and still has occasional double vision depending on the way he moves his head.
"John is just going to be an employer of health care providers," Allen said.
Langford acknowledged Binkowski was severely injured in the crash.
"We think he is entitled to a lot of compensation," Langford said.
But he argued that Allen's figures were inflated and not based on the medical evidence. He said Binkowski was back to work and to National Guard service seven months after the crash and seemed to be thriving during 2016 and 2017.
But as the trial approached this year, he suddenly left the National Guard due to health problems, which Langford questioned.
Langford encouraged jurors to base any damages on how well Binkowski has been recovering and not on speculation.
"These are real numbers," he said of the damages he suggested.