Becnel’s class action suits could see $300 million
Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 15, 2007
By KEVIN CHIRI
Editor and Publisher
LAPLACE – A St. John Parish attorney was handed two court victories this week in major class action lawsuits, that could result in as much as $300 million in settlement charges for his clients and those who defended the case.
Reserve attorney Daniel Becnel Jr., along with a group of 20 counselors in a Louisiana tobacco class action case, saw an appeal from tobacco companies of an earlier $531 million decision reduced, but still remaining at $200 million to fund a smoking cessation program for those signed on to the case.
Then also this past week, Becnel won a victory in the court of Judge Rosemary Ledet when she ruled that the Louisiana Department of Transportation (DOTD) is 50 percent liable in the high profile “Mothers Day Bus Crash” which occurred on May 9, 1999 in New Orleans. Becnel believes that case could now be worth up to $100 million.
The appeal by nine tobacco companies which originally lost the case was handled by Judge Richard J. Ganucheaux in the Civil District Court of Orleans Parish, and although reduced from its original settlement of over $500 million, still left a large sum for those affected.
Becnel and his fellow attorneys had argued the original case that began on May 24, 1996, and included a class that was certified to include all Louisiana residents who smoked on or before that date.
Becnel said that the appeal process may not be over since tobacco companies may still appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, while his group may appeal as well, seeking a reinstatement of the original judgement.
The Mother’s Day bus crash was a high-profile case in New Orleans in 1999 when a tour bus owned by Custom Bus Charters, Inc., left LaPlace with 43 passengers, destined for Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis.
As the bus headed to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it traveled along the I-610 in New Orleans, but as it approached an overpass near City Park, the bus left the highway off the right shoulder and went through a guard rail.
Becnel argued in court that the state highway department was liable for not ensuring the guardrail was properly maintained, while lawyers for the state argued that even the best guardrail couldn’t have stopped the bus from crashing through.
A total of 22 passengers died in the accident, and 21 others were injured as the bus became airborne and landed on a far side embankment.
Eleven wooden posts that supported the guardrail were damaged when struck by the bus, and Becnel introduced evidence that showed some of the wooden posts were infested with termites, contending DOTD failed to properly maintain and repair the posts, which substantially contributed to the accident.
Disagreement ensued at trial about how fast the bus was traveling, with Sgt. Edwin Ducote of the New Orleans Police Department saying he estimated the bus was traveling between 50 to 60 miles per hour, while the state’s accident reconstructionist, Brian McHenry, testifying the bus was traveling approximately 70 miles per hour as it left the highway.
Additionally, the breakaway guardrail system was constructed to redirect a 4,500 pound vehicle, with the bus weighing over 35,000 pounds.
Arthur Barrow, an expert highway design engineer, testified that if the guardrail was designed for a higher level of crashworthiness, there is a good chance the accident would have never happened.
In the end, the court ruled that DOTD should have recognized the need for a stronger guardrail system, and should not have even put the system at an area where a golf cart path from City Park was so close.
Bus driver Frank Bedell, the operator of the bus, was also found equally at fault with the state for the accident.
“This victory now allows us to proceed with each of the individual cases,” Becnel explained. “I’m sure the state will offer a settlement now that they have been found at fault, but we think the case could generate as much as $100 million for our clients.”