Resident sues County over automobile accident with snowplow chains.
M.C. Ellis lost his case against Mono County when the six-day jury trial held at Mono County Superior Court in Mammoth ended on Tuesday, May 13. Ellis made a claim for damages against the county after he ran over snowplow chains on Highway 395, approximately .5 miles north of Crowley Lake Drive, on February 10, 2011. The prosecution filed the initial claim against Mono County on January 30, 2012, just shy of a year after the incident.
The snowplow driver and county employee for 15 years, Joshua Rhodes, was driving north on the cleared highway in order to plow Owens Valley Road, but had not securely attached the chains to the outside of his vehicle. Ellis, 40, was the only one to run over the chains. His Windstar minivan was traveling approximately 50 miles per hour when the incident occurred.
“His skull went up into the roof,” Ellis’ attorney Joseph Barrett said in closing arguments. Barrett said this caused the ligaments, which stabilize the neck, to stretch. “Once that’s done, it’s done,” he said, stating that Ellis will experience chronic pain for the rest of his life. Ellis already had neck surgery in September of 2012 and Dr. Laureyssen, who performed the operation in Los Angeles and testified at the trial, recommends another surgery to further stabilize the spine.
Ellis, Barrett argued, had been a world-class athlete before the accident. He had competed in international Alpine Snowboard and Snowboardcross events from 2002-2006 and had recently begun training to compete in Martial Arts, before running over the chains. Prior to the accident, Barrett said, “Ellis was able to work out day and night to chase his dreams; dreams that were legitimate.”
Ellis claims all of his neck problems began after the incident, although the CHP report doesn’t record any testimony of injury.
The prosecution’s case also included witnesses Dr. Dennis Crunk, Andrew Kastor, and Pete Del Giudice, who testified that Ellis was now “just a shell of who he was,” as Barrett said in closing arguments.
The prosecution claimed wage loss, loss of use of property, hospital and medical expenses, general damage, property damage and loss of earning capacitiy on behalf of Ellis, totaling approximately $3.5 million in damages.
Barrett urged the jury to vote without prejudice, either prejudice about the Mono County financial situation, or the airport litigation, or other personal injury lawsuits.
“Something was taken from [Ellis], something that was important to him,” Barrett said; “His health.”
John Coleman, the defense attorney for the County, argued there was not sufficient evidence to prove that running over the chains caused Ellis’ neck injuries. Coleman, from Sacramento, was hired by the County’s insurance defense coverage through Trindel Insurance Fund and the California State Association of Counties (CSAC)
“I don’t believe [the prosecution] met their burden of proof,” he said in his closing arguments. “This was not an injury-producing event.”
Coleman cited the testimony of Dr. Tack Lam, a bio-mechanical engineer and orthopedist, who demonstrated, through a video simulation, that running over the chains could not produce enough vertical acceleration to cause Ellis’ injuries.
Coleman urged the jury to rely on the “un-refuted expert testimony … the shock was no more than skipping rope.”
He asked the jury to use their common sense, explaining that if the incident “really occurred the way [Ellis] described, he would have been in the hospital the next day.” Instead, Ellis didn’t see a doctor until two months after the accident. “There are inconsistencies that are tough to reconcile and actually do attack Mr. Ellis’ credibility,” Coleman said.
Coleman did admit to negligence on behalf of Mono County, stating that Rhodes “made a mistake. He was negligent. He didn’t secure chains on a snowplow vehicle.”
Coleman argued that Ellis’s degenerative disc disease was the cause of his injury, not running over the chains.
Barrett, on the other hand, said, “Mr. Ellis is more predisposed to injury [because of the disease], but that’s just the way it is. That’s not justice to say he doesn’t deserve the same compensation.”
The jury deliberated for an hour before coming back with its verdict: “Mono County’s negligence was not a substantial factor in causing harm to the plaintiff,” Foreperson John Morris said.
Jurors didn’t consider awarding Ellis any damages based on this decision.
Morris, Director of Operations at Snowcreek Resort, spoke to The Sheet after the trial finished. “There were very different accounts of what happened,” he said. “But what hard evidence is there that might make you believe one way or the other?”
“The defense ran a study and to me that was the most compelling thing. They ran a test where they took a similar vehicle, ran it over chains and measured the vertical acceleration, and it was nominal,” Morris said.
“I was amazed that the plaintiff’s side didn’t run that test. Had we seen a test, that he really could have gotten badly hurt, it could have been more believable. And that, with the inconsistency of Ellis’ testimony, made it difficult.”
Morris explained that the jury’s decision wasn’t made out of prejudice based on the County’s financial situation: “Nobody wants to see the County get screwed and put out three million dollars. But had I been convinced that it was their [the County’s] negligence, too bad. If you cause harm to somebody, you’re responsible for it.”
Morris said he recognized Ellis, who has lived in town for 20 years. “I know who Mr. Ellis is. I’ve seen him at the gym and I don’t wish him any harm” he said. But when you’re asking to prove that [the accident] caused his neck injuries, I just didn’t see it. Could it have? Yes it could have. But they have to prove that it’s more likely than not that it did.”
“I think for all of us, it wasn’t as much a character issue as it was lack of evidence,” Morris concluded.
Ellis was very disappointed with the jury’s verdict, according to Barrett, who said he would talk with counsel from Mono County before deciding whether or not to file an appeal on Ellis’ behalf.