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Apr 13, 2000

Trucker's Mom Wins $50 Million Judgment

Featuring: Robert T. Cunningham

Trucker's mom wins $50 million judgment 

April 13, 2000 

By KAREN TOLKKINEN 

GROVE HILL — A Clarke County jury awarded $50 million Wednesday to the mother of a Mack truck driver who burned to death after his rig wrecked. 

"This was an awful tragedy that could have been and should have been prevented, and the jury verdict reflects that," said Gaines McCorquodale of Jackson, one of the attorneys representing Mary Witherspoon, mother of victim Tonnie Witherspoon. Witherspoon sued Allentown, Pa.-based Mack Trucks Inc. in 1997, two years after her son died. 

Witherspoon's lawyers argued that Mack should have installed an inertia switch, a device that activates air bags and seat belts when it senses a wreck, said Mobile attorney Robert T. Cunningham Jr., who also represented Witherspoon. The inexpensive device would have interrupted electrical arcing in the power system, preventing the fire that claimed the man's life, he said. 

In 1975, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent out notices to Mack as well as other trucking companies, asking for feedback about a proposal to require companies to install the switch, Cunningham said. 

The proposal died when Mack and other truck companies fought it, he said, and Mack still does not install the switch. 

Tonnie Witherspoon was driving a full load of logs on Nov. 6, 1995 when he lost control about 10 miles northeast of Jackson, Cunningham said. The trailer jackknifed, pinning the 33-year-old bachelor inside, then caught fire. When would-be rescuers arrived, they talked to Witherspoon for about 15 minutes while they tried to extricate him, the lawyer said. The man was using a fire extinguisher inside the cab, then handed it out through a small hole to those trying to save him, but they were unable to put out the blaze. The heat drove them away from the rig, and they could hear the. man's screams, Cunningharn said. 

Some of those rescuers testified at the trial in Clarke County Circuit Court. 

Mary Witherspoon, a widow with at least two other sons works at Wal-Mart and lives in a small Clarke County community, Cunningham said. 

The jury's decision was reached after about 50 minutes and was by far the largest verdict anyone could remember in Clarke County. McCorquodale said. The next largest verdict anyone could remember was $2 million sometime in the past two, years, he said. 

Grove Hill attorney Lee B. Williams and Mobile attorney Don Pierce. who helped defend Mack. declined to comment on the verdict or possibility of an appeal referring questions to lead defense attornevs Ed Bowron and Bill Daniels. Bowron and Daniels could not be reached for comment. 

Hefty settlements in civil lawsuits have drawn criticism in recent years in Alabama as well as other parts of the country. Last year, a Hale County jury awarded $581 million to an Alabama family who sued Whirlpool Corp. over a $1,200 satellite dish dispute. 

But McCorquodale said this case is different. 

"With all of the talk about reform and jury verdicts, it's important to remember that case is not about insurance fraud, or TV satellite dishes. This is about a young man who was trapped in a truck and who literally burned alive while screaming for his life. I think anybody who had had a family member endure that would agree that this verdict is not excessive."

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