The $25.8 million dollar man – A case without precedent

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Voces/ Miami Mensual

Federal Judge Woodrow Seals signed an award for $25,843, 903.77 in favor of Gonzalo Sosa, a Mexican national, against Tracey Navigation Company Ltd. And the M/V Lago Izabal. My research revealed that this was the largest award ever entered for injuries suffered by a single person, where punitive damages were no awarded. The entire amount was compensatory in nature, designed to repay Gonzalo Sosa for his injuries and losses in the past and in the future. Judge Seals broke the award down in the following manner:

a) Past lost earnings $19,723.00
b) Future lost earnings capacity $2,157,376.00
c) Past unpaid medical expenses $42,547.00
d) Future medical expenses $10,979,394.51
e) Pain and suffering, bodily injury, disability, mental anguish, disfigurement, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life in the past and the future $10,000,000.00
f) Prejudgment interest $2,644,863.26

At the time of his accident, Gonzalo Sosa was a 24 year old seaman working onboard the motor vessel Lago Izabal. As the vessel was docking in Port Houston, the engine exploded spewing burning diesel fuel on him. An emergency helicopter ride and almost 7 months of hospitalization miraculously saved his life. Over 80% of Sosa’s body was burned consisting of approximately half second degree burns and half third degree burns. His hands are frozen into claw positions so that they are useless. He will need 24 hour a day care for the rest of his life and is totally and permanently disabled due to his injuries both from a physical as well as a mental point of view.

It took approximately three weeks to present the testimony and evidence in his case. On behalf of Sosa, experts in the area of orthopedics, plastic surgery, psychiatry, nursing, rehabilitation, psychology and economics testified.

To facilitate the presentation of this complex information, complex charts showing the human body and an actual model of the human hand were used. These techniques allowed the experts to demonstrate their testimony in a graphic manner. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of all was a film made of a typical day in the life of Gonzalo Sosa. In approximately 30 minutes this film demonstrated the absolute helplessness of this man who cannot do the simplest tasks, such as brush his teeth, button his shirt, eat by himself or hold his 3 year old daughter in his arms.

Tragically, Gonzalo Sosa, with only a sixth grade education is an intelligent man, totally aware that he is imprisoned for life in a virtually useless and deformed body. Persons who see him for the first time turn away. His entry into a noisy restaurant is met in a matter of moments with stunned silence. As result, Sosa has become a recluse, existing without living. His every moment is filled with the torment of the constant pain, the discomfort of itching and the rejection of those around him.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the case occurred when the Defendant, Tracey Navigation Company Ltd., took the position that the losses of Gonzalo Sosa should be calculated based on Mexican standards rather than U.S. standards. In support of this position, the Defendant utilized several old cases as precedent, and argued that Sosa’s losses should be determined based on his former employment as a machinist in a Mexican tortilla factory, rather than as a seaman. This defense was taken to an absurd extreme when the Defendant introduced pictured of Plaintiff’s home town and place of employment to prove that he came for a very poor background.

Not only did the judge reject this defense, but in doing so, entered the largest award in history. The court based its decision in part on the fact that (1) the Grand Cayman company that owned the vessel was itself owned by U.S. citizens and residents; (2) the vessel was operated out of Houston, Texas, which was its base of operations and (3) the vessel was used to carry cargo from the United States to Mexico.

This award is highly significant to all foreigners who seek the protection of the United States laws in U.S. courts. In not only soundly rejects the legal position advanced by the Defendants but goes a step further and declares that this is a land of equality where all men are equal under the law. While Judge Seal’s ruling is based on principals of United State law, it also adheres to moral principles in effect since history began. Confucius stated: “Recompense injury with justice, and unkindness with kindness.” Judge Seals has done just that.

Charles R. Lipcon

Charles R. Lipcon graduated from the University of Miami School of Law in 1971. Since that time he has practiced law in Miami, Florida, focusing on handling cases involving personal injuries or death. He represented the passengers in the first class action suit involving a cruise ship; and also represented the victims’ families of the Ocean Ranger oil rig collapse, in which 85 people were killed off the coast of Newfoundland. He has handled numerous accident cases in which more than $1,000,000.000 has been recovered, and is considered one of the leading trial attorneys in the country.