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Jury Gives Trooper $15 Million Award

The day after a jury in Middlesex County awarded Hans Hernandez a $15 million verdict, against Ford Motor Co. for a brain injury and broken bones he suffered in a car accident, Hernandez woke up and went to work as usual - patrolling the highway as a New Jersey state trooper.

"A lot of this, to me, seems unreal," said Hernandez, 32, of Dayton, yesterday. "I still don't believe this happened to me. I feel relatively healthy."

Hernandez was a rookie officer with the Rutgers University campus police in October 1995, responding to a call about a brawl outside the Livingston Student Center, when he lost control of his Ford Crown Victoria as he rounded a curve in Piscataway. The car slammed into a tree.

Hernandez was hospitalized at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital with broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken femur and jaw. He remained in a coma for three weeks, said his attorney, Steven Cahn of Edison.

A mechanic checked the police car for malfunction but didn't find any, and surgeons began a series of operations to heal Hernandez's wounds.

The following summer, while Hernandez was struggling to recover, Ford recalled 83,000 Crown Victorias because of a faulty joint connecting the steering column to a center link in the front axle, and Hernandez's lawyers, Cahn and Harold Parra, filed a lawsuit.

After a two-week trial before Judge Alan Rockoff in New Brunswick, the jury reached a verdict Friday, surprising attorneys with what they said may be the largest award in Middlesex County history.

Hernandez isn't counting his money, though, as Ford has announced plans to appeal.

"Until I have the money in the bank, it's not real," Hernandez said.

He spent the day at work Saturday, taking accident reports along a stretch of Interstate 95, "just like nothing ever happened."

"I don't want to be a popular person because of this," Hernandez said. "I've still got to be a trooper out on the road."

Ford's attorney on the case, James Dobis of Livingston, said yesterday he would file a motion seeking a new trial.

"Since the litigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the facts of the case," said Dobis, who argued at trial that the accident was caused by driver error, not a defective part.

Calls to a spokesman at Ford's Northeast regional office in New York, which was closed yesterday, were not returned.

The size of the verdict did not surprise Bernard Bell, a law professor at Rutgers University School of Law who specializes in tort claims.

"Often, the plaintiff is a much more sympathetic character to a jury," Bell said. "He has shown all this effort and heartache in trying to rehabilitate himself."

But, Bell said, that sympathy is usually offset by a large corporation's ability to tap huge financial resources to defend a claim.

In this case, it seems the jury was also convinced by a technology expert who took Ford's own videotape of testing on the Crown Victoria and pointed out flaws in the steering device, the pitman arm, Hernandez's attorney said.

Cahn described Hernandez's determination and said his commitment to a rigorous rehabilitation also seemed to influence the jury.

"He made a heroic recovery. He ran and trained so he would be able to come back to work," said Cahn, and he made it through the State Police Academy, despite his doctors' prediction that he would never work as a policeman again.

Hernandez is in pain every day, Cahn said, and he will be significantly disabled when he grows older, and require hip replacement surgery.

This article first appeared in The Home News Tribune, January 2002.

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