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Drunken driver hit with $3.5M verdict in Newport News

Plaintiff's vehilce

Plaintiff’s vehicle

A middle school teacher who was severely injured by a drunken driver has been awarded $3.5 million by a Newport News jury.

The verdict included $1 million in punitive damages against the defendant, who was 17 years old at the time of the crash.

The plaintiff, Jennifer Rios, was represented by Virginia Beach attorneys Edwin S. Booth and Erik C. Porcaro.

“[Rios] has been through hell and back,” Porcaro said. “We wanted to make sure she got fully compensated and had her day in court.”

The 2011 accident occurred on Lucas Creek Road, a residential street with a posted speed limit of 35 mph. The defendant, Austin Hicks, crossed the double yellow line and struck Rios head-on.

Hicks admitted he had taken his eyes off the road to check his cell phone, Porcaro said. But according to testimony from a responding police officer, Hicks exhibited signs of intoxication at the scene, and an empty vodka bottle was recovered from his back seat.

Approximately two hours after the accident, Hicks’s blood was drawn at the hospital, revealing a blood alcohol content level of .09. Hicks was later convicted of DUI maiming.

Rios, who was ejected from the vehicle, suffered life-altering injuries, including anoxic brain damage. According to Porcaro, she broke almost every major bone in her body, and underwent open reduction with internal fixation to all three bones in her right leg, her left femur, left elbow and hipbone. She also suffered a collapsed lung, traumatic pancreatitis, respiratory failure, hemorrhagic shock, internal bleeding and removal of the gallbladder, in addition to multiple soft tissue injuries.

Defendant's vehicle

Defendant’s vehicle

She spent two weeks in the hospital, followed by several months in a rehabilitation center, Porcaro said. It took three-and-a-half months for Rios to be able to walk on her own.

The civil case was tried before a Newport News jury, with Judge C. Peter Tench presiding.

The attorney for the defendant was not listed in the court records, according to the Newport News Circuit Court clerk’s office.

Hicks, who testified at trial, denied being intoxicated at the time of the accident, Porcaro said.

However, the jury heard testimony from a doctor with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, who claimed that the defendant would have had a .11 to .13 BAC at the time of the crash, based on weight by volume.

An empty bottle of vodka was found in the defendant's backseat

An empty bottle of vodka was found in the defendant’s backseat

Rios, a sixth grade English teacher with the Newport News Public School system, took a one-year leave of absence to focus on her recovery. She has since returned to teaching, but still suffers from constant pain and occasional seizures.

The jury awarded $2.5 million in compensatory damages, and $1 million in punitives. Under Virginia law, the punitive damages will be reduced to the statutory cap of $350,000.

Porcaro believes the verdict sends a strong message.

“We went to trial to get a punitive award and show the community that you don’t drink and drive, and that juries will punish you if you do,” he said.

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