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Judge awards $7M to motorcyclist hit by drunken driver

A Greensville County judge has awarded $7,000,000 to a correctional officer who suffered extensive injuries when his Harley-Davidson motorcycle was struck by a drunken driver.

Brandon Rawlings, who was 20 at the time of the accident, had a lifelong ambition to be a Virginia State Trooper, according to his attorney, John C. Shea of Richmond, who provided a synopsis of the facts of the case.

Shea said that on the evening of Aug. 7, 2009, Rawlings left home to meet with friends for a group motorcycle ride. He was traveling on Route 619, a two-lane highway near Emporia, when a 2007 Ford pickup truck in the opposite lane suddenly turned in front of him. The truck collided with the motorcycle, and Rawlings was thrown off his bike, landing on the road.

The driver of the pickup was John Fajna Jr., a tobacco farmer who had been driving from barn to barn, checking the structures for fires and other potential hazards. He had been drinking during his shift.

After the accident, Fajna left the scene and returned in another vehicle, according to Shea. But witnesses informed police that the vehicle he was driving was not the same one that hit the motorcycle. The truck involved in the accident belonged to his company, Sandy Grove Farms Partnership. Police recovered the pickup and found a bottle of alcohol inside.

Fajna’s blood alcohol level that night was significantly over the legal limit of .08, Shea said. He was arrested and later convicted of driving under the influence.

Rawlings was transported by helicopter to VCU Medical Center in Richmond. He suffered numerous injuries including traumatic brain injury, carotid artery dissection, significant orthopedic injuries, severe lacerations, dental fractures and an elbow contracture. He spent two weeks in the hospital, where he underwent multiple surgeries, and three additional weeks in inpatient rehabilitation. He returned to the hospital once more due to complications. His medical bills totaled $615,312.

“He paid a heavy toll for Mr. Fajna’s decision,” Shea said.

Rawlings filed a $10,000,000 suit against Fajna and Sandy Grove Farms. The defendants admitted liability and the nature and extent of the plaintiff’s injuries were not disputed. During trial before Judge Samuel Campbell, Shea asked for $7,000,000 in compensatory damages. No punitives were sought.

After the verdict, Progressive Insurance, the primary carrier for Sandy Grove Farms, paid their policy limits of $500,000. However, Shea believes the partnership has additional coverage under a Virginia Farm Bureau policy. A declaratory action is pending against the carrier regarding the extent of the coverage.

Fajna and his two brothers, all members of the partnership, each paid $100,000 of their own money towards the verdict in exchange for a release from personal exposure.

Rawlings, who Shea described as a “nice, hard-working, salt of the earth Southside young man,” made a great recovery but still suffers physical limitations. According to Shea, he has difficulty standing for long periods of time and experiences bad swelling in his feet. He also has permanent arm injuries.

Rawlings was able to return to his pre-accident employment, but due to his limitations, he no longer meets the physical requirements to be a State Trooper. As of now, his plan is to continue his career as a correctional officer, Shea said.

Defense attorney W. Tyler Shands could not be reached for comment.

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