A Los Angeles Superior Court jury Monday ordered insurers of rock and television star Leif Garrett to pay $3.9 million to his friend and passenger, Roland Winkler, who was paralyzed after Garrett’s Porsche zoomed off a freeway embankment and crashed five years ago.
Jurors assessed total damages in the civil negligence case at $4,215,500, but subtracted 8% of that amount, or $337,240, on the ground that Winkler contributed that much to his own injuries by agreeing to ride in a car with a driver who he knew was drunk.
The panel ordered payment of an additional $15,000 in punitive damages, which is not diminished by Winkler’s partial responsibility.
“The No. 1 message is that if you are an intoxicated passenger and know the driver is intoxicated, you may be somewhat at fault if you get in the car with him,” Winkler’s attorney, Edward Steinbrecher, said. “But the verdict also will set an example and serve as a warning for all drunk drivers.”
Testimony in the trial before Judge Philip M. Saeta indicated that Garrett and Winkler had attended a party together, consuming equal amounts of drugs and alcohol, before the accident on Nov. 3, 1979. Garrett rear-ended another car on the freeway, then drove over the embankment. Neither the actor nor occupants in the second car suffered serious injury.
Steve Freeburg, attorney for Transamerica Insurance Co., which must pay the damages, had argued that Winkler was 90% responsible for his own injuries because he agreed to ride with Garrett and because he neglected to fasten his seatbelt.
But after the verdict was announced, jurors told Steinbrecher that they disregarded the seatbelt argument because they doubted that a belt would have prevented Winkler’s injuries, which paralyzed him from the chest down.
Freeburg said Transamerica officials will have to make any decision on whether to appeal the verdict. Both Garrett, 23, and Winkler, 24, have lawsuits pending against the insurance company.
Steinbrecher said Winkler, then 19, was a student at Valley Junior College contemplating a career in music management when he was injured. He said the young man now is a volunteer assisting other paraplegics.
The lawyer attributed the relatively small punitive damage award--$15,000--to Garrett’s testimony that his net worth is only $50,000 to $100,000, although he has had six hit record albums and performed in 30 television programs and about 30 movies.
Jurors absolved Garrett’s mother, Carolyn Stellar, of any liability in permitting her son to drive her Porsche 914.
Five days shy of his 18th birthday at the time of the accident, Garrett was tried as a juvenile on criminal drunk-driving charges. His driver’s license was suspended for a year and he was placed on a year’s probation.