Family Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against a Trailer Manufacturer After Deadly Crash

It was 5:45 a.m. and Kathryn Dodgen was on her way to work to give a monthly motivational presentation—something she'd volunteered to do a year prior.

Kathryn worked as an administrative assistant at an oil and gas company, and during these office-wide presentations she'd recognize workers for outstanding teamwork or accomplishments. Her husband, Gerry Dodgen, remembers her beaming about it over the phone the previous night, before they went to bed. “She was dressed to the hilt in all her glory to make that presentation,” Dodgen says.

The next time his phone would ring, though, around 6 the next morning, Kathy was in trouble.

A 40-foot-long trailer had pulled out from a driveway into the middle of the road as Kathy approached an intersection. Not seeing the trailer's thin strips of reflectors on the sunless morning, Kathy didn't notice the flatbed and didn't brake until her car was headed straight underneath it. Though she was only going about 35 mph, the trailer ripped through her windshield, tearing off the roof of her small Hyundai Elantra. For 131 days afterward, 54-year-old Kathy never regained consciousness. She died Oct. 20, 2014.

Kathy's family and their lawyers believe the accident was entirely preventable—and so this week, they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the trailer's manufacturer, PJ Trailers. In the lawsuit, they accuse the manufacturer of releasing a defectively designed product onto the market, violating Texas's products liability laws. The trailer didn't have any side guards that would have prevented Kathryn's car from going underneath it.

Only rear guards are a required regulation right now, not side guards—but the National Highway Safety Bureau has been recommending them since at least 1968. It did so most recently last year.

“That's the problem that's been going on year after year,” said attorney Steve Fernelius, who is representing Kathryn's family. “The industry has known about the potential danger and hazards and has put their head in the sand. And it's going to take a lawsuit like this to change their ways.”

In 2012, a study in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention estimated that, between 2006 and 2008, 530 people died each year in crashes like Kathryn's—colliding with the side of a truck or trailer. It also found that in all cases of crashes like these, 89 percent of the injuries—fatal or severe—could have been mitigated had side guards been in place.

“Those simple side guards could have been on that trailer,” Dodgen said, “and the car would not have gone under. She would have been injured. The car would have been destroyed. But she would have survived probably.”

Because it's not mandated, technically, the PJ-made trailer met government regulations. But PJ Trailers has had its fair share of citations for violating other federal regulations. Last year, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration filed eight violations against PJ—five of which were repeat offenses—saying the company exposed workers to dangerous fumes, electrical hazards and other risks. The company has paid almost $200,000 in fines. (Company officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.)

But even though the suit is against PJ, Kathy's family and the attorneys say the suit is intended to send a message to the entire industry.

"Seeing the pain that she suffered—two brain surgeries, both side of her skull removed, everything that she went through,” Kathryn's daughter, 30-year-old Lauren Bernard said, “it's just heartbreaking, and I would hate for anyone to go through any similar experience. The fact that it can be avoided—it's got to change.”

Kathy won't be one of the statistics in any studies like the one in Traffic Injury Prevention: Dodgen says that, because she survived in a coma longer than 30 days afterward, the trailer accident is no longer her official cause of death.

During the four and half months of Kathy's long sleep, Lauren says that hundreds of people visited in the hospital. She kept hoping Kathy would wake up, so her son could one day meet his grandmother. She was 12 weeks pregnant when Kathy died.  “I told her many times, but I don't know if she ever heard me.”
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn