A Jasper County jury awarded a Joplin High School girl a $900,000 verdict this week in the trial of a lawsuit brought against another student accused of texting while driving in a two-vehicle accident that left her with a brain injury.
A jury of nine women and three men returned a unanimous verdict Thursday in favor of the plaintiffs, Tracey Kelly and her daughter, Olivia Kelly, and against defendant Joseph Schnaedter and his insurer, Safeco Insurance, following a three-day trial before Circuit Judge Gayle Crane in Jasper County Circuit Court.
Jurors found that Schnaedter was 84 percent at fault and assigned Olivia Kelly 16 percent of the fault in the accident Dec. 5, 2016, at the uncontrolled intersection of 42nd Street and Virginia Avenue on the south side of Joplin. Court records note that the judge will reduce the verdict amount by the percentage of fault assigned to Olivia Kelly.
Schnaedter was 18 and a senior at Joplin High School, and Kelly 16 and a sophomore, when the vehicles they were driving collided at the intersection.
The plaintiffs — represented by Joplin attorneys Charles Sticklen and Shelley Dreyer — maintained that the vehicles arrived at the intersection at the same time and that Kelly, being the driver on the right, had the right of way. Plaintiffs further alleged that Schnaedter's attention was diverted because he was texting while driving.
Schnaedter, who was represented by Kansas City attorney Oscar Espinoza, maintained that he had stopped texting before leaving home a few blocks from the accident scene.
Cellphone records introduced as evidence by the plaintiffs showed 205 text messages sent by Schnaedter between 7:17 a.m. and 7:59 a.m., the time of the accident, including one at 7:59 a.m. Sticklen told the Globe that Schnaedter acknowledged on the witness stand that he called his mother immediately after the collision, a call that cellphone records showed was placed at exactly 8 a.m.
"Olivia had a traumatic brain injury as a result of this," Sticklen said of his client.
He said she does not recall what happened to her, but her vehicle's airbag is known to have deployed and her head may have been struck by the bag and snapped backward into the driver's seat headrest. Her mother arrived at the scene and initially took the girl to a pediatrician, where she could not recall her birth date or phone number and displayed reduced emotional expressiveness associated with brain injury, Sticklen said.
She was taken from the pediatrician's office to Freeman Hospital East, where a CT scan and MRI determined that she had not suffered a brain bleed or skull fracture. But she continued exhibiting other signs of a brain injury, such as not being able to recognize her father, according to Sticklen.
She missed a semester of school with persistent impairments of her memory and thinking and related medical issues, such as migraines, mood changes, anxiety and sleep disorder, and slipped from being a student who got As to one who tended to get Cs when she did return to school the following fall, according to her attorney. She still suffers some of those issues today, almost two and half years later, he said.
Espinosa referred questions to a senior member of his law firm when contacted Friday by the Globe. The other attorney did not respond to a message left on her answering machine.