PORTLAND, Ore. — A federal jury ruled three truck drivers and the companies they worked for were to blame for a crash that killed an Idaho woman near Burns, Oregon in 2016.
On May 10, they were ordered to pay $26.5 million in what could be the largest verdict in the country for wrongful death caused by trucker negligence.
Sara and Matt Allison were on their way back to Boise from a quick vacation in Oregon; Sara had surprised Matt with concert tickets.
They took a celebratory side trip to Crater Lake because Matt had blood cancer and was starting to feel better.
“Not only was Sara a wonderful wife to him but she also became his caregiver,” one of the attorneys representing the family, Thomas D’Amore, said.
Sara was described as gentle and kind; she was a pharmacy tech who loved animals and wouldn’t hurt a fly.
But a senseless crash ended the 30-year-old's life and scarred her husband forever. He survived, but suffered severe injuries and was taken by life flight to an Oregon hospital.
A lawsuit alleges three truck drivers engaged in knowing and concerted acts of "negligence, recklessness and road rage." The aggressive road rage battle lasted for more than 90 miles on Highway 20, after the truckers entered into Oregon from Idaho. Two of the drivers, James Decou and Peter Barnes, were driving semi trucks for Smoot Brothers Transportation and the other driver, Jonathan Hogaboom, was transporting a luxury motor home for Horizon Transport, Inc.
There were originally four defendants but one was dropped from the case because he was in the back of the pack and cooperated in providing an eye witness account.
The suit says one of the trucking companies, Horizon Transport, has a policy that specifically states "stay off... Highway 20 in Oregon between Oregon and Bend".
“This should never have happened. These were four grown men, commercial drivers, trained better, knew better,” another attorney for the family, Steven J. Brady, said.
The lawsuit says the drivers were racing, illegally passing, brake checking, cutting each other off, prohibiting each other from passing safely and and flipping one other off.
Ultimately, D'Amore and Brady say a game of cat and mouse caused the deadly crash. Decou was trying to pass a luxury motor home, being transported by Hogaboom, but as Decou tried to pass Hogaboom would speed up and as Decou slowed down in an attempt to re-enter the lane, Hogaboom would slow down.
Initially, the attorneys say the zone Decou was attempting to pass Hogaboom was dotted and legal, but it became solid yellow and illegal to pass.
Decou crashed head-on with the Allisons as they were coming around a curve in the opposite direction.
"They never had a chance as they came down the road,” Brady said.
The family's attorneys hope the jury's ruling sends a message as they say road rage across the country is on the rise, particularly among professional drivers.
“Should never have happened and we need to have this send a message to trucking companies across the land that aggressive driving and road rage need to be the focus of their ongoing training and they need to make sure to get rid of drivers who don’t stick to that program and put others at risk,” Brady said.
Smoot Brothers Transportation took responsibility and settled. The other company, Horizon Transport, is on the hook for the rest of the money. But D'Amore and Brady say the company is covering it up and not admitting fault.
Allison's family knows the $26.5 million verdict won't bring her back. But it can change behavior so something like this doesn't happen again.
"The verdict did honor Sara’s memory and did honor her parents and husband but, you’re right, they can’t bring her back. But you know what they can do? They can make sure this doesn’t happen to another Sara Allison,” Brady said, “They can make sure this doesn’t happen again and out of state trucking companies' safety programs can make sure this doesn’t happen again. That is what I think the relief the family got was from this case, they needed to send a message to get behavior to change.”
KGW reached out to Horizon Tuesday afternoon but their office was closed.
James Decou was the Smoot Brothers driver who hit and killed Sara. He was sentenced to six years in prison for second-degree manslaughter.