In the early hours of December 24, 2016, Joseph Daniel Nevis lay on the side of mainline railroad tracks in Yuba City, California. He had just suffered a horrendous double amputation of his legs after being struck by an Amtrak train. In 2017, Nevis filed a lawsuit as a result of this devastating incident, which, as described below, was the culmination of a series of consequential and unfortunate events.[i]
In April 2016, Nevis, who is from Marysville, California, entered a clean and sober living program at Buddy’s House in Yuba City. Buddy’s House offers affordable housing for those recovering from drug and alcohol abuse. According to its website, buddyshouse.org, residents enter into a contract agreeing not to drink or use drugs.[ii] Relapse, among other things, is a ground for immediate termination.[iii]
Months later, on December 23, 2016, Nevis recalled he consumed alcohol, but he recalled little else thereafter. December 23rd became December 24th, and just before 1:30 a.m., Yuba City Police discovered Nevis on a sidewalk and decided he was too intoxicated to be taken to jail. As a result, officers took Nevis to Rideout Memorial Hospital in Marysville, where he was seen in the emergency room by Dr. Hector Lopez.
However, just before 2:00 a.m., Nevis was discharged. Although records indicate Nevis presented with an abnormally high heart rate and having been brought to the hospital by law enforcement, he was permitted to leave the hospital on his own.[iv]
Between the time of his release and around 2:30 a.m., Nevis walked down a pedestrian path that was alongside the train tracks. He apparently tripped and lay on the ground with his legs across a portion of the tracks. At approximately 2:30 a.m., an Amtrak train struck Nevis, severing both of his legs in different locations.
Nevis filed suit on November 17, 2017, naming Rideout Memorial Hospital, Dr. Lopez, and Amtrak (named in the action by its legal name, “National Railroad Passenger Corporation”). Perhaps needless to say, the claims against the defendants fell into two categories: medical negligence against Rideout Memorial Hospital and Lopez, and negligent operation of the train against Amtrak.
During the pendency of the litigation, Nevis later sought to pursue another defendant, Chris Edson, the Amtrak engineer. On December 20, 2018, Nevis filed a second lawsuit naming Edson, alleging his operation of the train was negligent, and seeking punitive damages against him for his alleged conduct. Edson’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss, contending service upon Edson was untimely. The US District Court agreed and dismissed the action. The court found service on Edson was untimely (343 days after the lawsuit was filed). The court also concluded the dismissal would result in little prejudice to Nevis, as the matter was largely duplicative of the originally filed action.[v]
After years of litigation in the original action, the matter proceeded to trial in October of 2022. The case proceeded to verdict, and the federal jury in Sacramento ultimately found Nevis sustained damages in the amount of $28.6 million. However, the negligence findings, as well as the applicability of California’s cap on certain medical malpractice damages (MICRA), caused Judge Dale A. Drozd to order the attorneys to confer on the ultimate award to Nevis.
Notably, the jury breakdown of liability was as follows:
Rideout Memorial Hospital: 30%
Dr. Lopez: 30%
The award is thus the subject of a notable series of calculations given the various findings of liability, the applicability of the $250,000 MICRA cap on non-economic damages awarded for medical negligence, as well as the joint and several liability considerations under California law. California is a pure comparative negligence state, such that the award to Nevis will be reduced by his percentage of fault.
While Nevis is expected to recover millions based on the verdict, a surprise witness during trial could have changed everything. The defense called Emily Hilbers, a Sutter County woman who knew Nevis through his sister. Ms. Hilbers testified Nevis stated he was trying to commit suicide. According to Hilbers, during a car ride in the months after the accident, Nevis said he intended to kill himself on the train tracks that night. Nevis’ attorney questioned Hilbers’ credibility and the reliability of her testimony, which was also countered by the testimony of Nevis and his sister. They explained that Hilbers may have misconstrued what Nevis had said, which was that he thought his life was over after the incident and, particularly, during the time he spent laying on the tracks after the train collision.[vii]
While publication of an award of $26.8 million in a personal injury matter causes all to take notice and certainly screams NUCLEAR VERDICT®, the details suggest a somewhat mixed outcome based on the application on the comparative negligence findings and the ultimate application of MICRA. Yes, this is a Nuclear Verdict®, but one with nuances, in what is a tragic and curious case determined by a federal jury in Sacramento.
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[i] The litigation proceeded in the United States District Court, E.D. California, Case Number 2:17-cv-02295-JAM-AC
[ii] “Buddy’s House: Network of Clean & Sober Homes,” Buddy’s House, (https://www.buddyshouse.org/).
[iv] Curley, Mike. “Calif. Man Awarded $28.6M After Losing Legs To Amtrak Train” Law360 (https://www.law360.com/articles/1544857/calif-man-awarded-28-6m-after-losing-legs-to-amtrak-train), 10/31/2022.
[v] See, Order Granting Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss (2020) Case No. 2:18-cv-03238-JAM-DMC, 2020 WL 996794.
[vi] Curley, Mike, supra note iv.