Injured seaman wins $25.8 million award


By Eric Rieder
The Miami Herald

Judge awards seaman record damages.

A federal judge in Texas awarded $25.8 million in damages Thursday to a seaman burned by an exploding ship’s engine in what experts called the largest judgment of its kind in American courts.

The award went to Gonzalo Sosa, 27, who became psychotic and sustained an 80 percent skin loss after the engine of the Lago Izabal exploded in Houston harbor on Jan. 21, 1980.

The $25.8 million judgment, handed down by the U.S. District Judge Woodrow Seals, is to be paid by the cargo ships owner, the Houston based Tracey Navigation Co., and its insurance company, Oceanus Mutual Underwriting Ltd.

The damages, including $11 million in medical care and $10 million for pain and suffering were awarded solely to compensate Sosa for his injuries, not to punish the cargo ship company, according to Miami personal injury lawyer Charles Lipcon, one of the attorneys for the seaman.

While courts have awarded punitive damage judgments greater then Sosa’s, personal injury lawyers said they knew of no individual compensatory damage awards that high.

“All compensatory – fantastic,” said—Miami attorney’ Shelby Highsmith. “Somebody did a fantastic job.”

Even more unusual is that the award was handed down after a trial by judge, rather than by jury. Many of the largest jury verdicts are reduced by trial judges, or cut back on appeal.

“It’s not like a runaway verdict,” said Lipcon, who tried the case with Houston lawyers Ron Kormanik and Steve Mafrige. “You’re dealing with a very conscientious, skilled and experienced trial judge.”

Lipcon wouldn’t discuss how much the lawyers will receive, but contingency fees In personal injury cases commonly range from one-third to 40 percent of the judgment.

James Ross, the lawyer for Tracy Navigation Co., could not be reached for comment. Sosa’s attorneys, however, said they expected the firm would appeal.

Sosa was working in the engine room of the cargo ship as it docked in Houston to pick up a load of oil-field supplies bound for Mexico.

The ship’s diesel engine exploded spewing flaming fuel over Sosa, a resident alien who remains Mexican citizen. His attorneys describe him as “totally disabled,” mentally and physically, as a result of the accident.

He has trouble sleeping, suffers constant pain and danger of infection, and can’t use his fingers. Sosa, who lives in Houston with his wife Gloria and three-year-old daughter Carmina, requires 24-hour nursing care, as well as medical and psychiatric treatment.

In addition to the medical costs and pain and suffering, the total award includes $2.2 million for lost income and $2.6 million in interest.