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$89 Million Verdict Awarded to Family of Drunk Driver Victim

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that a Franklin Country, Missouri jury has awarded $89 million in damages to the family of a drunk driver victim killed in 2008.

“The eye-popping numbers were the jury’s attempt to send a message the only way they could,” said attorney Mark Bronson, who won the case after a day-long trial in Franklin County Circuit Court.

Bronson said that his clients probably won’t ever see a fraction of the money, but the jury made a big statement about their disgust with drunk driving.

In this case, the drunk driver was Troy Zerna, who was 20 years old at the time of the crash. Zerna was already driving on a hardship license because of a previous DWI. Zerna caused a head-on collision in 2008 with his previous DWI.

In the most recent crash, Zerna’s blood alcohol level was 0.20 percent – 2.5 times the legal limit to drive, according to Missouri Highway Patrol.

Dennis Riegel, Jr., 28, was killed in the crash. His fiancee Christine Hodge, who was 13 weeks pregnant at the time of the crash, was seriously injured. Hodge recovered and now has a daughter. The jury awarded $53.5 million to Hodge and $35.5 million to the couple’s daughter and Riegel’s parents, Dennis and Linda Riegel.

Zerna’s license had been suspended for his previous DWI just five months before the fatal DWI wreck. Zerna was sentenced to a total of 10 years in prison.

“I think the jury was expressing its belief that the system is not working, and they’re sending a message that sentences need to be tougher and they need to be increased across the board,” said Bronson.

A CNN ireport article states that the family of Riegel asked the jury to send the following message: “We are fed up with drunk drivers in our community. If you drink, do not drive. We all have cell phones. Call a friend, call a family member, call a taxi – do not get behind the wheel. Do not cause a senseless unnecessary tragedy.”

“The twelve jurors heard this family’s tragic story of the harms caused by a drunk driver and each of them wanted to do what they could to send a message to keep us all safer. Now the rest of the community needs to make sure the jury’s message sinks in. Do not drink and drive,” Bronson said after the verdict was read.

At the time of the wreck, Hodge and Riegel were returning from a mall, where they had been registering for their wedding. Zerna was speeding around a curve when he lost control of his vehicle and collided with Riegel’s vehicle head-on.

During the trial, Hodge testified and described how the force of the crash shattered nearly all the bones in her face and caused complications in her pregnancy. Relatives of Hodge and Riegel spoke about how they were looking forward to the young couple’s wedding and the need for tougher penalties for drunk drivers.

Have you been injured or lost a family member in an auto accident with a drunk driver? If so, contact an experienced attorney immediately. Call MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule a free consultation.