Testimony opened Monday in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a longtime Waco oral surgeon who died last year when an employee of a local auto dealership backed over him in a parking lot with an SUV.

Attorneys for the family of Dr. Jerry Don Lance, along with attorneys for Bird-Kultgen Ford and employee Ernesto Ramirez, selected a jury in the 414th State District Court on Monday and gave opening statements. Lance’s widow and adult children are seeking more than $1 million in damages in a trial expected to last five or six days.

The lawsuit alleges that Ramirez was driving and another employee, Emil Tatsch, was in the passenger seat in April 2017 when Ramirez backed a Ford Expedition into the 77-year-old Lance, who was looking at new cars.

In opening statements, Waco attorney John Mabry Jr., who represents the Lance family with attorney John Lewis, described Lance as a man with a “generous heart, a great sense of humor and a passion to help others.”

He said Jerry Don and his wife, Kayron, were married 46 years. He practiced oral surgery for 40 years in Waco and treated more than 87,000 patients. After his retirement, he worked as a consultant for a dental insurance company and was making $250,000 a year in that capacity, Mabry said. Lance was in relatively good health for his age and had a life expectancy of 10 more years, Mabry said.

“Why are we here, you might be wondering,” Mabry said. “We’re here because Bird-Kultgen Ford and Mr. Ramirez still refuse to accept responsibility for Dr. Lance’s death and catastrophic damage done to this family. Bird-Kultgen Ford and Mr. Ramirez still refuse to accept responsibility for this terrible tragedy and seem intent on blaming Dr. Lance for his own death even though they have absolutely no evidence that he was in any way negligent.”

Bird-Kultgen’s lead attorney, Andrew T. McKinney IV of Houston, told the jury that Lance’s death was a tragic accident that occurred in a split second. He said the auto dealership was not at fault.

“Accidents happen every day,” McKinney said. “Tragedies happen every day. But these things are a part of human condition. This is a human tragedy. That is what it is.”

McKinney said employees opened the lots for customers the same way for years and no injuries or “near misses” had occurred on the dealership lot. He said employees routinely followed the same procedures for moving “blocker” vehicles away from dealership gates for years with no complaints from customers or management about the way employees opened the lot.

“Nothing of the kind would suggest that this process was in some form or fashion some kind of threat to customers,” McKinney said. “The reason is that this is the first time that a customer somehow managed to become or put themselves in the path of a vehicle.”

McKinney argued that Lance’s deteriorating mental health was a factor in the incident. Lance had been suffering from mental health issues and likely would not have been capable of continuing his consulting work for much longer, he 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, Mabry said.

While walking around the lot, he was struck by a 2017 Ford Expedition “that was traveling backward down the aisle of new vehicles at a high rate of speed,” he said. Ramirez and Tatsch were opening the gates of the dealership when the incident occurred.

“Detectives from the Waco Police Department investigated the incident and determined that Mr. Ramirez was at fault for ‘backing without safety,’ ” according to the lawsuit. “The Expedition was traveling so fast, and struck Dr. Lance with such force, that his body crumpled the rear lift gate and crimped the metal.”

Investigators said Lance was dragged more than 20 feet by the Expedition, which was going 16 mph to 22 mph in reverse when it struck him, Mabry said.

Lance suffered head injuries, internal bleeding, multiple facial fractures, eight broken ribs, a fractured pelvis and a broken hand, according to the lawsuit. He died 11 days later at a local hospital.

Tribune-Herald staff writer Kristin Hoppa contributed to this story.

Staff writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald covering courts and criminal justice. Follow me on Twitter @TSpoonFeed.

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