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Harney County road rage case ends with $26.5 million verdict

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Harney County road rage case ends with $26.5 million verdict

Matthew and Sara Allison are beaming in the photo they took in front of Crater Lake, their last bit of Oregon sightseeing before leaving June 5, 2016, for home in Boise. He was 27. She was 30. They were married five years.

They never made it back.

Sara was behind the wheel of their Ford Focus so Matthew could rest during the drive on narrow Highway 20 east of Burns when James Decou of Clearfield, Utah, drove his flat-bed hauling semi head-on into the couple’s car.

Matthew suffered broken ribs, a lacerated spleen and head trauma, requiring a flight in an emergency helicopter from Harney District Hospital in Burns to Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland.

Sara died in the crash.

Matthew Allison recounted the story May 7 in Pendleton while testifying in federal court during the civil trial for his injuries and his wife’s death. Court records show he brought the urn containing Sara’s remains to the witness stand.

“I hadn’t really found a sense of purpose until I met her,” he told the jury. “I found a purpose in her. We had — it seems cliche to say it, but we had that type of love that most people spend their entire lives looking for.”

The trial ran nine days and concluded May 10. The jury awarded almost $26.5 million against two trucking companies and their drivers and found them negligent for engaging in road rage antics for 90 miles, according to the lawyers for the Allisons, right up to the end.

The road to disaster

The Portland law firm of Tom D’Amore represented Matthew Allison and his wife’s estate. D’Amore said he has seen road rage cases before but not like this.

“This should never have happened,” he said. “Never. Four commercially licensed drivers engaged in these activities for such a long period of time.”

Decou, Peter Barnes and Corey Frew were driving semitrailers for Utah-based Smoot Brothers Transportation from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Eugene, according to D’Amore, depositions, court documents and police reports in the case. Barnes said he was near Mountain Home, Idaho, when he had the first “run-in” with a motorhome driver who cut him off on the freeway and slammed on the brakes to shoot for an exit.

Jonathan Hogaboom of Taylor, Michigan, was driving the 45-foot-long, $750,000 luxury motorhome for Horizon Transport from Indiana for delivery in Oregon. Hogaboom and the three truckers met up again on Highway 20 in Eastern Oregon.

The truckers and Hogaboom raced to pass each other, cut each other off and pulled in front of each other only to slam on the brakes. Hogaboom on more than one occasion blasted the big RV’s air horn when he was next to one of the semis and flipped the bird to one driver.

Matthew and Sara Allison were heading east from Crater Lake. Two days earlier they took in a concert in Portland, then hiked in Mount Hood National Forest and at the last minute diverted to see the grandeur of Crater Lake. He told the jury he was glad they went.

“Those are some of the best memories that I will hold on to for the rest of my life,” he said.

For the first time in two years, Matthew Allison could again enjoy the outdoors with Sara. In 2014 he developed leukemia. Sara Allison, a pharmacy technician, helped her husband stay on his drug schedule and took him to doctor’s appointments, including to see specialists at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City. She cared for him and worked full time.

The blood disorder led to surgery in November 2015 to reverse necrosis on Matthew’s right hip. The physical therapy lasted until about April 2016. Coming out of that, they planned the trip to Oregon.

“It was our way to celebrate having got through that tough time together,” Matthew said at trial. “It was a much-needed break.”

They took off from Crater Lake with Sara driving. They stopped in Burns, their halfway point, to fuel up and switch seats.

Matthew testified Sara saw how exhausted he was, so she decided to let her husband sleep as they left Burns.

The crash

The three semis and the RV continued their perilous actions heading west on Highway 20.

Barnes was in the lead, about a minute-and-half ahead of the rest. Hogaboom in the RV was behind him. Decou was in the third spot, and Frew brought up the rear. Decou earlier tried to pass the RV. Barnes got on his radio and said an eastbound car just drove by him and it was safe to pass. Decou pulled out at the edge of a passing zone to make his move.

Within a moment he was driving in a no passing zone and had maybe 90 seconds to get back in the lane. Hogaboom did not let that happen. Decou told Oregon State Police, when he hit the gas, Hogaboom punched it as well. He said he tried to get over two or three times, but the RV blocked him out. The state trooper asked him why he didn’t slow down and get back in the correct lane.

“Because the more I slowed down, the more he slowed down.” Decou replied.

Hogaboom claimed he was going about 60-65 behind a small BMW car, according to police reports and court documents, and coming into a curve the car slowed and he had to slow to make the curve. That’s when he saw the semi trying to pass.

Hogaboom said he was irritated and had to slow down further. Near milepost 156, he saw the car coming in the other lane. The car Sara Allison was driving.

He said he jammed on the brakes to get space with the BMW, and the BMW did the same thing, leaving no room for the semi.

Decou also saw the Ford Focus, and Sara Allison saw the semi.

She jerked the car to the right and off the road and into the dirt. Decou hit the brakes, slid and turned to the left.

The semi plowed into the car, mashing the driver’s side.

Matthew Allison told the jury Sara woke him.

“I remember hearing her scream my name moments, moments,” he said, “… moments right before …”

He also said he saw Sara in the car in her final moments. He said he didn’t think he got to say goodbye to her.

The aftermath

Matthew Allison moved back to Ohio, where he was from, to live with his father. They have a complicated relationship, he testified, and eventually he moved in with new caregivers.

He underwent hip replacement surgery in June 2018. Almost a year later, the career National Guardsman who hiked national parks walks with difficulty. He told the jury one word described his life since the crash: “Miserable.”

He suffers panic attacks while driving. He won’t ride as a passenger at night. He has nightmares about the crash and seeing Sara. When he wakes, he realizes again she is gone.

He said, at his lowest, he considered suicide. But he feels better, more stable. He wants to move closer to Salt Lake City to be near the cancer institute, but he has no family near there.

“I lost everything that night,” Matthew said at trial. “I lost my spouse, I lost my companion, I lost my health in a sense. I lost my career. I fell hard. I fell hard.”

D’Amore said the $26.5 million verdict is fitting and the largest jury verdict for a trucking wrongful death in the Pacific Northwest. The jury recognized how wonderful Sara Allison was, he said, but the award also serves as a strong deterrent.

“We want to send a message we have to stop this on our roads.” he said. “If you look at statistics, road rage is getting worse, not just among civilian drivers but worse among professional drivers.”

Oregon caps damages for wrongful death at $500,000. U.S. District Judge Patricia Sullivan allowed the jury to award the far greater amount because the Allisons lived in Idaho, which has no cap on noneconomic damages in wrongful deaths.

Frew was the only driver not a defendant in the civil case. Still, Smoot Enterprises fired him, along with Barnes and Decou. Smoot also agreed to pay $900,000 to the Allison estate in a settlement before the jury handed up the verdict.

Horizon did not settle and remains on the hook for the rest of the $26.5 million.

Only James Decou, 35, faced criminal charges in the fatal crash. He pleaded guilty in August 2017 to second-degree manslaughter and received a prison sentence of six years, three months, with credit for the time he was in jail. He is an inmate at Eastern Oregon Correction Institution in Pendleton.

A spokesperson for D’Amore’s firm said Hogaboom now drives for Swift Transportation, the largest trucking company in the United States.

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