Caltrans fails to warn subcontractor of dangerous health conditions at work site. $12 million. Solano County.

Summary

Plaintiffs contract dangerous Valley Fever after doing construction work for Caltrans.

The Case

  • Case Name: Hukill, et al v. California Department of Transportation
  • Court and Case Number: Solano County Superior Court / FCS037118
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Friday, January 22, 2016
  • Date Action was Filed: Tuesday, August 25, 2009
  • Type of Action: Dangerous Condition Public Property, Workplace Accident, Misc.
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Michael Mattice
  • Plaintiffs:
    Elvie and Mark Hukill, Oscar Villasenor, Jose Hernandez, Glenn Bugler,, Ricardo Gutierrez, Francisco Espinoza, and Bugler Construction.
  • Defendants:
    California Department of Transportation (Caltrans)
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $11,980,000
  • Net Verdict or Award: $11,980,000
  • Economic Damages:

    Elvie Hukill: $3,386,838.96

    Mark Hukill: $1,621,007.37

    Jose Hernandez: $244,094.22

    Oscar Villasenor: $193,936.66

    Glenn Bugler: $88,793

  • Non-Economic Damages:

    Elvie Hukill: $1,464,000

    Mark Hukill: $1,220,000

    Jose Hernandez: $1,524,000

    Oscar Villasenor: $1,964,000

    Glenn Bugler: $222,950

  • Punitive Damages:

    Unavailable against a public entity per statute.

  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 9 weeks.
  • Jury Deliberation Time: 6 days.
  • Jury Polls: Waived.
  • Post Trial Motions & Post-Verdict Settlements: Caltrans has filed post-trial motions for JNOV, for reduction the judgment by collateral source payments (Gov. Code § 985), and to pay the judgment by periodic payments (Gov. Code § 984).

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Hinton Alfert & Kahn by Peter W. Alfert, Karen H. Kahn and Mark T. Baller, Walnut Creek.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    Caltrans Legal by Daniel A. Near and Jeffrey B. Knox, Sacramento.

The Experts

  • Plaintiff’s Medical Expert(s):

    Robert Larsen, M.D., Valley Fever, Los Angeles.

    John Taylor, Ph.D., mycology (fungus), Davis.

    Ronald Ruff, Ph.D., plaintiff mental examination, San Francisco.

  • Defendant's Medical Expert(s):

    John Galgiani, M.D., Valley Fever, Phoenix, AZ.

    David Busch, M.D., defense physical examinations, San Francisco.

    William D. Hooker, Ph.D., defense mental examinations, San Francisco.

  • Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):

    Mark Nicas, Ph.D., Microbial risk assessment, Berkeley.

    Carol Hyland, life care planning, Lafayette.

    Peter Formuzis, Ph.D., economics, Fullerton.

  • Defendant's Technical Expert(s):

    Timothy Bormann, CIH, contractors' duties, San Mateo.

    Gerald Udinsky, Ph.D., economics, Berkeley.

    Guy Harris, P.E., Caltrans construction projects, Meridian.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    In September 2007, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) contracted with the construction company owned by Glenn Bugler to expand a culvert on a state right of way near Route 33 in Kern County. The work consisted primarily of excavation and movement of earth / soil. (Per defense counsel: Soil excavation was completed during the first week of the project.  The work primarily consisted of structure work expanding a culvert to widen Route 33.) Plaintiffs all worked at the construction project in late June 2008, and by early July 2008, all plaintiffs were diagnosed with coccidioidomycosis pneumonia, which is caused by the Coccidioides immitis fungus, as had several other persons working at the site (including a Caltrans inspector). 

    The potentially fatal disease, Coccidioidomycosis, is commonly known as "Valley Fever.”  Exposure to the fungus at a single location, and contraction of Valley Fever illness by a group of people, is known as a Point Source Outbreak.

    Seven worker plaintiffs filed the original suit, but two were dropped after it was discovered that they were undocumented. Those two workers were deported.

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    Plaintiffs, including Bugler Construction’s owner, Glenn Bugler, and its employees Elvie Hukill, William Mark Hukill, Oscar Villasenor and Jose Hernandez, claimed that the property contained the dangerous Coccidioides immitis fungus.  Plaintiffs contended that the fungus at the project site caused them to develop Valley Fever. Further, that the disease is incurable. Plaintiffs sued the State of California and Caltrans. [The State of California was dismissed based on a court ruling that the State of California is not a proper entity which can be sued.]

    That until the plaintiffs were diagnosed with Valley Fever, none had knowledge of the fungus, nor did they know the area in which they were working could be infected.

    Plaintiffs contended in their first cause of action that the construction site was a dangerous condition of public property; that Caltrans had notice of the dangerous condition; and that Caltrans failed to warn the plaintiffs of the dangerous condition.

    Plaintiffs contended in their second cause of action that Caltrans’ employees actively, intentionally withheld facts from them which would have put them on notice of the hazardous fungus in the soil.

    Plaintiffs established at trial that Caltrans knew before contracting with Bugler Construction that: 1) the construction site was in an area highly endemic for Coccidioides immitis; 2) the project site was in an area that posed the "highest risk" of developing Valley Fever to persons engaged in soil-moving activities; 3) Caltrans’ supervisory level employees, including the Safety Officer for Kern County and the construction safety coordinator for the project site where plaintiffs worked, had received training from the Kern County Department of Public Health about the hazardous nature of the fungus and steps that could be taken to prevent or mitigate exposure; 4) as part of that training, the Caltrans employees received a map which identified areas where the fungus had been isolated in the soil, including the area where plaintiffs were to work; 5) Caltrans had received reports of its own employees and contractors’ employees contracting Valley Fever working at construction sites in the highly endemic area; 6) Caltrans had warned all of its Kern County employees who had email accounts about the risk of exposure to the Coccidioides immitis fungus during excavation or other soil-disturbing work, and informed them how to prevent or mitigate exposure; 7) Caltrans, however, did not inform Bugler Construction or its employees of the risk - not in the contract for the construction project; not in a pre-construction safety meeting prior to the start of work; and  not during work at the construction site. 

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    Caltrans contended that there was no evidence to prove that the fungus was in the soil excavated at the construction site. Also, that the plaintiffs were exposed to dust containing the fungus while at the construction site area; that even if the fungus was in the soil, Caltrans did not have notice that it was there; that Caltrans acted reasonably, Bugler Construction should have known of the hazard of the fungus in the soil and what precautions needed to be taken. 

    Also, that Glenn Bugler had knowledge of the fungus prior to working at the project and that Bugler Construction’s superintendent knew of the fungus prior to Bugler Construction submitting its bid on the project, but still worked at the project site without applying water to control dust and not wearing a protective mask. 

    As to plaintiffs’ second cause of action, Caltrans contended its employees did not conceal the risk; that plaintiffs knew or should have known of the hazardous fungus; and that Caltrans’ employees did not intentionally conceal facts. 

    Defense contested the extent of the injuries and further contended that the disease is curable.

Injuries and Other Damages

  • Physical Injuries claimed by Plaintiff:

    All plaintiffs suffered high inoculum exposures and were diagnosed with multi-lobe coccidioidomycosis pneumonia, which is indicative of severe infections.

    Two plaintiffs – Elvie Hukill and W. Mark Hukill – are disabled and unable to work; two plaintiffs – Jose Hernandez and Oscar Villasenor – are partially disabled but have returned to work because their employers have accommodated them in non-strenuous jobs that do not require heavy manual labor; Glenn Bugler has returned to work without restrictions. 

    (Per defense counsel: Hernandez and Villasenor both returned to their previous work within 9 months after becoming ill.  Hernandez is an equipment operator who was not performing heavy manual labor before or after he became ill.  Villasenor returned to a job which required heavy manual labor and within the last year has been promoted to a supervisory position which requires less manual labor.  There was no evidence that either of them are partially disabled and none of them received any compensation for future lost earnings.)

    • Elvie Hukill: This plaintiff was diagnosed with severe Valley Fever pneumonia in July 2008.  Her injuries include a 30% permanent loss in lung function, a reduced life expectancy (exact number of years unknown) and a 60 percent risk that the fungus spread undetected to other body organs. She also suffered a psychological injury. She is disabled from work. (Per defense counsel: It was disputed whether there was a 60% risk that the fungus spread undetected to other body parts. This is called “dissemination.”  The evidence was undisputed that there was no clinical evidence that the fungus had disseminated to other body parts in any of the plaintiffs. The testimony was that people who have a certain level of the fungus in their blood when they are ill have a certain risk of the fungus disseminating to other body parts.  However, once the fungus is no longer in the person’s blood, as is the case for each of the plaintiffs, and the fungus has not already disseminated to other body parts, there is virtually no risk of dissemination to other body parts in the future.)
    • William Mark Hukill: This plaintiff was diagnosed with severe Valley Fever pneumonia in July 2008. He was hospitalized for three days. His injuries include reduced lung function, reduced life expectancy (exact number of years unknown) and a 40% risk that the fungus spread undetected to other body organs.  He is disabled from work. (Per defense counsel: The testimony was that he was disabled from work as a result of alcohol and methamphetamine addiction which plaintiffs attributed to Valley Fever.)
    • Jose Hernandez: This plaintiff was diagnosed with severe Valley Fever pneumonia in July 2008.  He was hospitalized for five days. His injuries include reduced lung function, reduced life expectancy (exact number of years unknown) and an 80% risk that the fungus spread undetected to other body organs. He was disabled from work from July 2008 – April 2009. Since April 2009 he has been working in a position that does not require manual labor. (Per defense counsel: Hernandez returned to work in his previous capacity as an equipment operator which did not require manual labor.)
    • Oscar Villasenor: This plaintiff was diagnosed with severe Valley Fever pneumonia in July 2008.  His injuries include reduced lung function, reduced life expectancy (exact number of years unknown) and a 60% risk that the fungus spread undetected to other body organs.  He was disabled from working from July 2008 – April 2009. Since April 2009 he has been working in a position that does not require manual labor. (Per defense counsel: Villasenor returned to work and, for several years, worked in a position where he had to move train rails into place which required heavy manual labor.)
    • Glenn Bugler: This plaintiff was diagnosed with a limited Valley Fever infection in July 2008.   His injuries include nodules in his lungs and a minimal risk that the fungus spread undetected to other body organs.  He was partially disabled from working from July 2008 – December 2008.  He has recovered from his acute illness and returned to work without restrictions. (Per defense counsel: Glenn Bugler never missed any work due to this illness.)

Special Damages

  • Special Damages Claimed - Past Medical: Elvie Hukill $80,407.75 (100% awarded); Mark Hukill: $70,571.78 (100% awarded); Jose Hernandez: $25,039.40 (100% awarded); Oscar Villasenor: $13,468.50 (100% awarded); Glenn Bugler: $793 (100% awarded).
  • Special Damages Claimed - Future Medical: Elvie Hukill $114,924.21 (100% awarded); Mark Hukill: $122,746.59 (100% awarded); Jose Hernandez: $121,268.82 (100% awarded); Oscar Villasenor: $139,117.16 (100% awarded); Glenn Bugler: $4,500 (100% awarded).
  • Special Damages Claimed - Past Lost Earnings: Elvie Hukill $1,212,907 (100% awarded); Mark Hukill: $569,075 (100% awarded); Jose Hernandez: $98,786 (100% awarded); Oscar Villasenor: $41,351 (100% awarded); Glenn Bugler: $83,500 (100% awarded).
  • Special Damages Claimed - Future Lost Earnings: Elvie Hukill $1,978,600 (100% awarded); Mark Hukill: $858,614 (100% awarded): Jose Hernandez, Oscar Villasenor and Glenn Bugler did not claim future lost earnings.

Demands and Offers

  • Plaintiff §998 Demand: None.
  • Plaintiff Final Demand before Trial: $18,000,000 (Per defense counsel: $20,000,000)
  • Plaintiff Demand during Trial: None. (Per defense counsel: $48,000,000)
  • Defendant §998 Offer: Waiver of costs
  • Defendant Final Offer before Trial: $1,000,000

Disclaimer

This is not an official court document. While the publisher believes the information to be accurate, the publisher does not guarantee it and the reader is advised not to rely upon it without consulting the official court documents or the attorneys of record in this matter who are listed above.

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