In Gadsden County, Florida, last October, six jurors and an alternate settled in for a long day in front of their home computers and mobile devices to hear a personal injury case. Among them was a pastor, a chiropractor and a state government worker.
The judge, presiding from his computer inside the century-old Gadsden County courthouse in downtown Quincy, population about 7,000, asked everyone to be ready for the Zoom trial by 8:30 a.m. Across the street in a rented office, the plaintiff’s legal team flipped open their laptops and prepared to make their arguments.
One of the plaintiff’s attorneys was Ben Crump, who at the time was juggling some of the nation’s highest-profile civil rights cases on behalf of families whose loved ones were killed by police. Crump had come back to his home base in Tallahassee to represent Duane Washington, a retired Army veteran and software tester who was permanently injured when he crashed his motorcycle during a 45-vehicle pileup on a Florida highway.
The case drew scant attention outside the local community in the state’s panhandle—at least in the beginning.
A storm moves in
After finishing work on July 24, 2018, Duane Washington put on a light jacket, leather gloves, elbow and knee pads and a full-face helmet before hopping onto his 2008 Aprilia motorcycle to head home.
He turned onto westbound Interstate 10, the route he usually took for the 30-minute commute. As he cruised along I-10, a heavy rainstorm moved in.
Washington’s memory is spotty about what happened next. He remembers traffic slowing down and seeing lots of brake lights as the rain turned into a torrential downpour. Up ahead, a semitrailer truck had jackknifed, triggering a series of crashes behind it, including cars and other trucks. Washington decided to pull over at an underpass to get out of the pounding rain and wait until the storm passed.
As he steered left to the median, Washington slammed into the back of a pickup truck that also had pulled over to stop, and he was thrown from his motorcycle.
A woman driving behind Washington saw him crash. “Oh my gosh. This man is dead … I can’t believe I just saw that,” she later recalled saying to herself. She stopped and got out of her car to check on him. “I honestly just prayed for him.”
Other drivers who saw the crash dialed 911 from their cellphones but could not get through, likely because the system was overloaded with callers who had witnessed or were involved in the massive pileup. Authorities already were on the way. Washington was conscious but unable to talk as he lay on the ground. An off-duty paramedic at the scene asked him some questions, which he answered by blinking his eyes. Washington, who was 40 years old at the time, sustained the most serious injuries among at least eight others who were hurt.
The Florida Highway Patrol believed the pileup started when a semitrailer truck driver took evasive action to avoid another driver who had slowed down during the rainstorm.
Source: ABA Journal