On August 20, 2021, a Nassau County jury awarded the family of Connor Dzion, a teenager killed in a truck crash near Jacksonville, Florida, $1 billion in damages.
No, that’s not a typo. Billion, with a “b”.
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at what made this one of the largest verdicts in the history of Florida wrongful death cases and whether or not the family will actually be able to collect the judgment.
On September 5, 2017, Connor Dzion, an 18-year-old student at the University of North Florida, was driving south on I-95 when traffic came to a standstill due to an accident that had happened further ahead on the road.
The accident was caused by Russel Rogatenko, the driver of an AJD Business Services Truck, who was looking at his cell phone when he crashed and flipped his 18-wheeler. A later investigation found that AJD Business Services failed to conduct a background check when they hired Russel. Had the company done so, it would have found that Russel had been in several accidents and that he did not have a license to drive a commercial truck.
While sitting in traffic waiting for the accident to be cleared, Connor’s vehicle was rear-ended by a semi-truck owned by Kahkashan Carrier and driven by Yadwinder Sangha. The impact of the collision killed Connor.
Data pulled from the Kahkashan Carrier semi-truck showed that Yadwinder had set the cruise control to 70 miles per hour and had failed to brake until 1 second before the crash. The post-crash investigation also found that Yadwinder was on his 25th straight hour of driving, which far exceeded the legal limit.
Who was Connor Dzion?
Connor Dzion graduated magna cum laude from Creekside High School in 2017. He was an accomplished golfer and member of the North Florida Professional Golf Association Junior Tour. At the time of the accident, Connor had just started classes at the University of North Florida where he dreamed of pursuing a doctorate degree in Physical Therapy.
"He was a very smart individual, very determined,” said Connor’s father. “Whatever he did, he did it right, and he was determined and whatever he set his mind and heart to he would do it."
It took the Nassau County jury less than 4 hours to issue a verdict following the 5-day trial.
The jury awarded Connor’s parents $90 million in compensatory damages against Kahkashan Carrier (the owner of the truck that rear-ended Connor’s vehicle) and $10 million in compensatory damages against AJD Business Services for being grossly negligent in hiring Russel Rogatenko (the driver who caused the crash that initially stopped traffic).
What’s more, the jury awarded $900 million in punitive damages against AJD Business Services.
The massive verdict far exceeds the whopping $411 million verdict handed down in Florida just last fall following a 2018 commercial truck crash in Tallahassee that left a motorcyclist severely injured.
Jurors consider a number of factors when deciding how much to award in a wrongful death case, including the age of the deceased at the time of the accident.
In the case of Connor Dzion, one factor that may have contributed to the high award is the fact that AJD Business Services offered little to no defense. According to reports, the company failed to participate in any proceedings in the case after July 2019.
Will Connor Dzion’s parents be able to collect the $1 billion judgment?
Although high verdicts tend to grab the attention of the media, plaintiffs don’t always see the amount touted in the headlines. As the saying goes: “You can’t get blood out of a stone.”
In the case of Connor Dzion, both trucking companies were insured at the time of the accident. As a result, Connor’s parents will likely be able to collect the amount owed up to the policy limits. Whether or not Connor’s parents will be able to collect anything beyond the policy limits depends, in part, on whether the trucking companies are solvent.
Even if Connor’s parents aren’t able to collect the total amount owed from the trucking companies, the case can still be considered a success because trucking companies will undoubtedly take notice and think twice before ignoring state and federal laws.
“This is a message to all those bad trucking companies: play by the rules the good trucking companies play by,” said the attorney for Connor’s parents.
Truck accident cases are complex. They often involve multiple parties and multiple insurance companies. To ensure your rights are protected, consult with an experienced truck accident attorney as soon as possible following a crash.