At 35 and 33 years of age, respectively, local attorneys David Dies and Clay Dugas have already accomplished what many of their peers can go a lifetime without doing.
Last Friday the two won a personal injury case that will likely change the way a nationwide company does business and that at the same time set a mark in Orange County as the largest ever award given in such a case – a total of $3.7 Million.
It was, they each said emphatically, the high point of their individual careers so far — careers that began 10 years ago for Dies and nine years ago for Dugas. They each also have carried on well-known family traditions in entering the legal field.
Dies although now in private practice, has worked with his brother, Martin Dies III, and Dugas, also in private practice, began his career working with his father, Louis Dugas.
But, while they’ve celebrated Friday’s hard-fought victory and admit they still haven’t come down out of the clouds, each also has a deep sense of having accomplished more than just providing a service to a client or even furthering his own career.
Lawyers here that represent injured people, Dugas said, are often afraid to file cases in this county because there’s a feeling that no matter how strong the evidence presented, the injured party can’t expect a generous award.
“I like to think this case means something to the attorneys and those injured.” Dugas said. “If the evidence is there to support the case, they can feel confident that an Orange-County jury will be as fair to them as any jury in Texas.”
Dies carries it further, commenting that he and Clay put 2 1/2 years of their lives into the case completed Friday, risking a great deal financially, to bring it to an Orange County jury.
It was done in part, he said, to make a just award to the family of a man who died in an accident but also to get one of the company’s named in the lawsuit “to take some action that would prevent people from being injured in the future.”
“We feel confident Valley Industries will change their way of doing business… as a result of this Orange County case.” Dugas said.
“I’m very proud that the jury did something to stop that and I’m proud that it was an Orange County jury that did it,” Dies says.
The case also represented the longest-running personal injury trial in the county and had lasted some five weeks. It really began on Jan. 6, 1987, when Bridge City man, David Chatagnier, a senior airman in the U.S. Air Force, was taking his wife, Jaime, and their two children, Anthony and Jessica, to Michigan where he had been stationed.
The future looked bright for the family. A 1962 Bridge City High School graduate, he was sixth in his class and was a member of the National Honor Society. A “likely officer candidate,” Dugas explains.
But while on a highway overpass in Milwaukee, Wis., A U-Haul trailer loaded with the family’s possessions became unhitched from their truck’s bumper. The Chatagniers stopped and the parents got out to rehook the trailer. But a vehicle driven by Errol Wilson of Wisconsin struck the trailer from the rear, knocking the two off the overpass and onto the highway below.
Chatagnier was killed while Mrs. Chatagnier sustained severe, crippling injuries. Fortunately, their children remained safe in the truck.
When litigation was begun, Dugas was brought into the case and he sought the help of his longtime friend, Dies. While both worked on the entire case, for the record Dugas represented Mrs. Chatagnier and her parents-in-law, while Dies represented the children and estate. What lay ahead for the two young attorneys was a great deal of work. Dies cites quite a litany – some 64 depositions, five trips to Milwaukee, three to Phoenix where U-Haul is headquartered, trips to St. Louis, San Diego, Michigan, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Dallas, Houston — all to gather all the pieces of information that have to go into a successful case.
No litigation ever involved Wilson, who settled with the family for $500,000 in April 1987.
But U-Haul and Valley remained. The issues involving them were these: Valley Industries of Lodi, Calif., was producing a faulty ball used to hook the trailer on and U-Haul not only allowed a trailer that was too large for the Chatagniers’ truck but should have warned them that the ball was not safe for their bumper.
Dugas and Dies were up against some “big guns” in the case. U-Haul and Valley both operate in every state in the nation and in every major city. U-Haul brought in six attorneys and used three law firms, including some of the most well-known names in the business. Valley Industries had two attorneys.
The lawsuit could have been filed anywhere, Dugas said.
Four weeks into the trial, U-Haul opted to settle, with court sources indicating the company paid the family $$$$$$$ up front with another $$$$$$$ to be paid if nothing was recovered from Valley Industries.
And so as the fifth week of testimony began, only Valley Industries was left.
“After U-Haul (settled) David and I agreed this was a no-lose situation,” Dugas said.
“The evidence was going very well against the defendant,” Dies adds.
But even with U-Haul out of the picture, the two still felt Valley was the prime defendant.
“The evidence showed that Valley had known since 1982 that the trailer ball was dangerous when used on that type bumper,” Dies says. “The jury felt strongly that Valley didn’t take steps to protect the customers.”
“We pointed out to the jury that over a million of these types of vehicles are on the road — the situation doesn’t just affect the Chatagniers,” Dugas said. “The jury felt they needed to send a message to the company…”
Apparently the jury felt very strongly about the message. Because when the case went to deliberation, they came back with a judgment that stated Wilson was 15 percent at fault, U-Haul 30 percent at fault and Valley Industries 55 percent at fault for the loss of David Chatagniers’ life and Jaime’s injuries.
The actual award given came to $$$$$$$. That’s reduced by 45 percent because of the percentages of who was found at fault, bringing it to $$$$$$$. Another $$$$$$$ was added for punitive damages. Then there’s the $$$$$$$ from U-Haul and $$$$$$$ from Wilson.
But Dugas and Dies both are quick to add that this just isn’t some runaway jury decision in which money is given without much thought.
“A lot of people were hurt in this case,” Dugas said. “The jury was fair, it was not some kind of fluke