Jury awards family nearly $22 million

March 24, 2010

Driver found guilty of gross negligence in death of BU student

By Hogan Allcorn

A Robertson County jury awarded $21,825,000 on March 17 to the family of a Baylor student who was killed in a car accident over the 2007 Thanksgiving break.

On Nov. 25, 2007, Megan Small, a 21 year-old Baylor senior at the time of her death, was traveling north on Highway 6 from her home in Houston.

Jason Reed Vestal, a 20-year-old A&M student at the time, was driving south on Highway 6 when his pickup truck crossed over the center line divider and hit Small's Camaro head-on.

Small died instantly while Vestal was taken to St. Joseph Regional Health Center in Bryan and in critical condition.

Vestal's cell phone use while driving is suspected to be the main contributing cause of the accident.

According to a press release from the plaintiff's attorney, Vestal claimed in a sworn interrogation that he was not in possession of his cell phone at the time of the incident. However, mobile telephone records subpoenaed from AT&T by the plaintiff's counsel presented evidence that showed Vestal sent and/or received 15 text messages and placed seven phone calls in the 45 minutes preceding the fatal crash.

After approximately two-and-a-half hours of deliberation on March 17, the jury unanimously found that Vestal was both negligent and grossly negligent and awarded the nearly $22 million in damages to Small's family.

Baylor School of Law graduate and Houston attorney Hunter Craft represented the Small family.

"It wasn't too hard to attain the records," Craft said. "AT&T was very cooperative. The fact that he clearly lied about using the phone certainly made matters worse for him."

According to Fox 26 News in Houston, Vestal apologized for his actions during the trial. The defendant and the defendant's attorney declined an interview with the Lariat. The Robertson County district judge and clerk also declined to comment on the trial.

"This is a tremendous verdict in sending the message to not text while you're driving," Craft said. "This is the largest wrongful death verdict in Robertson County by a factor of three."

Megan's father, Kevin Small, said in a press conference Friday that he was pleased that the jury understood the dangers text messaging presents while driving.

"It told me that they were serious about the kind of behavior they expect on the roads of their county. I was proud of them," Kevin said.

Laura Gleffe, Small's lifelong best friend and a student at McLennan Community College at the time, was following Small at the time of the accident. The accident caused Gleffe to drive her Volkswagen Beetle off the road and roll over. Gleffe suffered a concussion and was treated and released from the hospital that night.

"All I remember is seeing Megan's car exploding and the debris flying into my car and then rolling off the road," Gleffe said. "I was there for the entire trial. The verdict was great and justice was served on behalf of Megan."

Vestal's counsel was quoted in a press release as saying Vestal "used to have a lead foot" but is "a much safer driver now."

Evidence at the trial revealed that Vestal received a ticket for speeding in a school zone within six months after hitting Small.

He also received another citation for running a stop sign months after that.

There are currently no laws against text messaging along the route from Waco to Bryan. However, texting while driving is becoming outlawed in various areas across the nation, including 20 states. Though Texas does not have a state-wide law, Austin banned texting while driving this year.

"You're going to be seeing a lot more of [banning of text messaging and driving]," Craft said. "I'm glad that Austin has taken some initiative in Texas."

Before the trial, Vestal declared bankruptcy, so it is unlikely that the Small family will receive the millions of dollars awarded by the jury.

Jim Underwood, a Baylor Law School law professor explained what could happen to Vestal.

"If the defendant doesn't have the funds to pay or insurance, this may all be largely moot," Underwood said. "The civil system basically works in terms of monetary payments. There might be potential criminal liability, like vehicular manslaughter, as well." It has yet to be determined if Robertson County prosecutors will pursue criminal charges on Vestal.

"We were not in it for the money," Megan's mom Pat Small said. "We just wanted closure, answers and healing. And basically to send a message to the community that texting and phoning behind the wheel is wrong."

Craft said he gained a good sense of who Megan was during the trial. "From an emotional standpoint Megan was an unbelievable person, and that really showed through her family and friends," Craft said. "A large part of the verdict was made out of anger because the jury could see how great of a person Megan was and what a stupid thing (Vestal) was doing."

Gleffe remembers the good times that she had with her best friend. "She was just a very happy-go-lucky person," Gleffe said. "We were always together laughing, shopping and doing whatever."