Early Tuesday afternoon, John David Ross, 29, of Winterville, drove his roofing crew toward a job site on northbound NC Highway 43. Behind Ross’ Chevrolet pick-up truck was a home-made flatbed trailer loaded with shingles and other roofing materials. The investigating State Trooper said that the trailer lacked proper safety devices required by state law, such as a properly sized hitch pin and safety chains connecting the trailer to the truck.

As Ross’ truck and trailer crested a short hill, the trailer suddenly detached from the truck and veered into the oncoming lane. Tragically, Lisa Langemann, 27, and her two young daughters were headed southbound in their SUV on NC Highway 43 at the same time. Langemann must have seen the trailer coming because witnesses say the SUV swerved to the right to try and avoid the collision, but the out of control trailer struck the SUV head-on. After the sudden impact, the SUV hit a ditch and flipped over.

Langemann died at the scene. Her 8 year old daughter is listed in serious condition at Pitt Memorial Hospital, and her one month old daughter was treated and released. Her family is devastated by her loss. Langemann was a second grade teacher at Bethel Elementary School in Pitt County. She was in her third year of teaching at the school. The teachers, administrators and students were shocked when they learned of the wreck.

Langemann’s family could pursue a wrongful death claim against Ross and his roofing company. Given the type of safety violations that caused this crash, pursuing such a case could help provide for the care and upbringing of her two young children. While financial compensation could never bring back this wonderful teacher and mother, it might make a difference in her childrens’ lives. While Ross certainly feels terrible about what happened, he is still legally responsible for the outcome.

In light of what appears to be the gross nature of these safety violations, such as the fact that there is no excuse for using a trailer without safety chains connecting it to the truck, Langemann’s estate could very well pursue a claim for punitive damages against Ross and his company. The basis for such a claim would be Ross’ reckless indifference, in using such an unsafe trailer, for the rights and safety of others on Highway 43. As I have discussed in prior posts, punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer and deter others from committing similar wrongful acts in the future. There is a statutory cap on the amount of punitive damages that one can recover in this situation in North Carolina. One can only recover punitive damages in an amount that is three times the amount of compensatory damages.

In cases like this, it is important that the attorney for the estate closely monitor the criminal side of the case, attending each court appearance, and routinely talking with the assistant district attorney. Often, the defendant’s attorney will be able to persuade the prosecuting attorney to either dismiss or reduce the criminal charges, especially when it appears that there may be some car insurance to compensate the victim or their family. It is very important in such situations for the victim’s attorney to already be involved in the criminal case so that he/she can make sure that the criminal charges result in criminal convictions.

In this case, Ross has been charged with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle. While I can not image any reasonable assistant district attorney dismissing these charges, stranger things have happened in criminal district court. By working closely with the assistant district attorney, the estate’s attorney can make sure that the prosecutor is aware of the deceased person’s family’s wishes regarding the criminal side of the case and ensure that a proper conviction or plea is obtained. If the defendant driver enters a guilty plea to the criminal charges, then that plea of guilty can be used as an admission of negligence in the civil wrongful death case.