A McLennan County jury awarded $2.8 million Thursday to the family of a retired Waco oral surgeon who was killed last year when an employee of a local auto dealership backed over him in a parking lot with an SUV.
Jurors in 414th State District Court deliberated about three-and-a-half hours before returning the verdict in favor of Kayron Lance, widow of Dr. Jerry Don Lance, and their adult children, Shelly Lance and Jason Lance.
The verdict found Bird-Kultgen Ford and employee Ernesto Ramirez at fault for the 77-year-old Lance’s death after Ramirez, traveling backward from 16 mph to 21 mph for about 100 yards, struck Lance while he was looking at new cars in front of the dealership in April 2017.
“Nothing will ever bring Don Lance back to his family, but the jury held Bird-Kultgen Ford and their employee accountable and the Lance family couldn’t be more thankful,” the family’s attorney, John Mabry Jr. said. “The Lances are wonderful people, and it was an honor and privilege to represent them.”
Ramirez acknowledged during his trial testimony that he was traveling too fast in reverse. However, he said he and other employees have been opening the gates to the dealership in a similar fashion for at least six years without incident. He said the backup camera in the 2017 Ford Expedition was useless to him because the early-morning sun obscured its image.
Lance family attorneys, Mabry, John Lewis and J.R. Vicha, asked jurors to award the family $11 million, while Andrew McKinney IV, who represented Bird-Kultgen and Ramirez, suggested a verdict of $1.5 million would be reasonable if they found the dealership at fault. McKinney declined comment after the verdict.
In closing statements Thursday, McKinney offered several defensive strategies for the jury to consider, including calling the incident an “unavoidable accident” that was not caused by anyone’s negligence.
He also said Lance should share in blame because he should have expected cars would be driving by at an auto dealership and he should have kept a better watch.
“If you have been doing something the same way for six years without an incident, can you reasonably foresee that on the sixth year, day 1 that something will go horribly wrong?” McKinney asked the jury. “Is that really foreseeable? … The reality of the situation is that 18 mph is not all that fast. It’s school zone speed.”
Mabry reminded the jury of the testimonies of Waco police Detective John Clark, who investigated the accident, and former Bird-Kultgen employee Emil Tatsch, who was riding in the passenger seat when Ramirez backed over Lance.
Clark found Ramirez solely at fault and said he was “backing without safety,” going too fast and failing to keep a proper watch.
Tatsch said he never looked back and the pair never saw Lance until after the SUV struck him.
Mabry charged McKinney with using a “spaghetti defense,” saying he was throwing things up on a wall to see what sticks.
“First he says it’s an unavoidable accident and no one is at fault and then he says it’s Dr. Lance’s fault,” Mabry said. “You can’t have it both ways. Those are mutually exclusive.”
The jury’s $2,824,792 total award includes compensation for past and future loss of care, maintenance and support from Lance, past and future loss of companionship, past and future mental anguish, medical expenses, and funeral and burial expenses.
The jury found Bird-Kultgen 55 percent responsible for the incident, Ramirez 35 percent responsible and Lance 10 percent responsible. Because the jury found Lance 10 percent responsible, the compensation paid to the family will be reduced by $282,479. The jury award is also broken down into specific categories for Lance’s wife and his children, with his wife receiving the majority.
Lance and his wife were married 46 years. He practiced oral surgery for 40 years in Waco and later worked as a consultant for a dental insurance company, making $250,000 the year before he was killed.
If he worked four more years at that rate, he would have made $1 million, Mabry said.
Lance dropped his car off at Bird-Kultgen, 1700 W. Loop 340, for service at about 7:30 a.m. and was looking at new cars on the lot while waiting for his wife to pick him up.
Investigators said Lance was dragged more than 20 feet by the Expedition. His body crumpled the rear lift gate and crimped the metal. His glasses ended up inside the back of the SUV after the back windshield broke.
Lance suffered head injuries, internal bleeding, multiple facial fractures, eight broken ribs, a fractured pelvis and a broken hand. He died 11 days later at a local hospital, and Mabry told the jury the family was asking for $1 million for each day Lance suffered before his death.
Included in the verdict is $1,050,000 for Don Lance’s pain and mental anguish.