April 17, 2003
LOS ANGELES, CALIF.–Host Marriott Corporation and the operators of one of Marriott’s Fairfield Inns agreed to pay a surviving family member of a 75-year-old woman $1.35 million after the woman and her daughter were struck and killed by a hotel van operated by Fairfield Inn, a Marriott franchise. The accident occurred at Philadelphia International Airport but the complaint was filed in U.S. District Court, in Los Angeles (Jospeh P. Drazek and Susan E. Nath v. Host Marriott Corporation, Case Number: CV 01-6294 ER). The award is one of the largest reported results for a wrongful death automobile case in California involving an individual over age 65.
Jean Drazek and her daughter Paula Bentwood, 39, both from San Diego, were waiting for a hotel van at Philadelphia International Airport. Drazek was sitting in a wheelchair by the curb. Drazek dropped her purse, reached forward to retrieve it and fell out of the wheelchair into the street. Her daughter came to her aid. While they were in the street, a Fairfield Inn van ran over both. They were pronounced dead at the scene. It was soon learned that the van driver had only three months driving experience in the U.S. in violation of Marriott policy and that the van was poorly maintained.
“The van driver attempted to apply the brake when he saw the two women in front of him. The brake pedal pad fell to the floor, causing his foot to slip and hit the gas,” says Christoph T. Nettesheim of Santa Barbara, California’s Cappello & McCann LLP and attorney for the plaintiffs (Drazek’s husband Joseph Drazek and her surviving daughter Susan Nath).
“The large settlement is significant,” notes Nettesheim. “Defendants in cases involving injuries to individuals over age 65 often argue that their life expectancy and earning ability are limited so their families are not entitled to large awards.”
Marriott contended (in an unsuccessful Summary Judgment Motion) that the case fell under California Vehicle Code Section 17151, which says parties not directly involved in an accident are only required to pay up to $15,000 in damages. It also argued that Drazek, suffering from stage IV breast cancer, had only a few months to live so her family was not entitled to much compensation. “We did not agree that this case fell under Vehicle Code Section 17151,” says Nettesheim. “Marriott as the franchisor exercised substantial control over the Fairfield Inns and is responsible for the actions of the employees of these inns.”
The case was settled one day prior to trial on January 13, 2003 while the question of the availability of punitive damages and attorneys’ fees under California’s Elder Abuse Statute (Welfare and Institutions Code Section 15600, et seq.) was still pending. Marriott agreed to pay the plaintiffs $350,000 and Tharaldson Property Management, which operated the Marriott-franchised Fairfield Inn and employed the van driver, agreed to pay $1 million. The defense settled a separate claim on behalf of the estate of Paula Brentwood, Drazek’s daughter, several months before trial.
© 2003 Cappello & Noël. All rights reserved.