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Highway department held liable in teens’ deaths on shoulderless road

A panel of arbitrators awarded $6 million in damages to the families of two young men killed on a rural Missouri roadway.

Attorneys Lynn Henry of Henry & Williams and Brennan Delaney of Langdon & Emison represented the parents of 17-year-old Zach White and 16-year-old Jonah Smith, who along with several other members of the Willow Springs High School football team who had gone out to an area lake to go swimming after football practice on July 30, 2019.

While driving home, White’s vehicle slowly drifted off the 20-foot ride roadway. He overcorrected as he attempted to recover from the steep shoulder. The vehicle rolled, ejecting White and Smith, his passenger, who each died at the scene.

In a lawsuit originally filed in Howell County Circuit Court and later transferred to Douglas County, the plaintiffs alleged that the road had 2-foot shoulders at the time of construction in 1960 but that the Missouri Department of Transportation had failed to keep the shoulder flush and level with the edge of the pavement and that there was no longer any shoulder in violation of the department’s engineering policy guide.

Ahead of a December 2021 trial date, the matter was submitted to binding arbitration. The panel found $3 million in damages for each of the deceased teens, though White was held to be 70 percent at fault for his injuries.

Under the state cap on damages that can be assessed against public entities, each family’s award was reduced to $459,893.

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$6 million judgment

Wrongful Death

Venue: Douglas County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 20DG-CC00040/Oct. 19, 2022

Arbitrators: Joseph Dandurand, Tim Dollar and Samuel Spain

Judge: Steven Privette

Plaintiffs’ Expert: Richard Cannon, Dynamic Safety, Lake Zurich, Illinois (engineering)

Defendant’s Expert: Ron Effland, Springfield (engineering)

Caption: Ivan and Janel Smith, Jeff White and Kyla Oziah v. Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission

Plaintiffs’ Attorneys: Lynn Henry, Henry & Williams, West Plains; Brennan Delaney, Langdon & Emison, Lexington

Defendant’s Attorney: John Grimm, The Limbaugh Law Firm, Cape Girardeau