Harrison County

An 18-wheeler slammed into her car. Will $3.5M cover this Biloxi woman’s injuries?

A Gulfport jury recently awarded $3.5 million to 41-year-old Leighann Gonzalez of Biloxi, who suffered life-altering injuries when a truck driver ran a stop sign in June 2017 and slammed an 18-wheeler into her car.

Coastal Industrial Contractors Inc. of Biloxi owned the truck and assumed liability, leaving the jury to determine the amount of damages. The company’s attorney, Matthew Williams of Gulfport, said he could not comment on any potential appeal.

The driver was dismissed as a defendant in the Circuit Court case.

Jackson attorneys Michele Biegel and Chuck McRae represented Gonzalez. They had asked for $5.7 million to cover their client’s lost wages, medical bills and long-term care.

Gonzalez was obeying traffic laws as she drove north on Mississippi 67, testimony showed. The truck driver ran a stop sign on Success Road at highway 67, slamming the 18-wheeler into her Honda Civic.

Gonzalez had a black belt in karate and was working as an MRI technician when the truck hit her, McRae said. He said that she had returned to school so she could get her job. She was healthy and independent before the accident.

After the accident, he said, her mother left work as a registered nurse to care for Gonzalez, who suffered a head injury and numerous broken bones. She also has short-term memory loss and has been unable to return to work, though she tried, McRae said.

The driver of the truck had three traffic violations when he applied for work at Coastal Contractors in 2016, but did not disclose his most recent conviction for failing to obey a traffic sign/signal. He was convicted of a fourth violation, speeding, in June 2016 less than a month after he went to work for the company, Biegel said.

By time Coastal performed an annual review in October 2016, the company was aware of the recent convictions, evidence showed. Still, the driver kept his job.

The judge in the case, Christopher Schmidt, ruled out punitive damages awarded for gross negligence or reckless disregard of federal motor carrier safety regulations.

McRae is a former state Supreme Court justice from Pascagoula. Biegel is from Long Beach, where she was a standout basketball player in high school. She has practiced law since 2003, but won this big verdict in her first jury trial. Most civil cases settle before trial.

Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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