ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A judge has awarded nearly $80 million to the family of a New Mexico woman who died in 2002 when a tractor-trailer struck her car and buried it in sand, suffocating the woman as teachers and students at a nearby school frantically tried to dig her out.
Laura Miera of Albuquerque had just dropped off her 14-year-old daughter at Jimmy Carter Middle School and was waiting at a traffic light when the semi exited Interstate 40 and came barreling toward her.
The Albuquerque Redi-Mix truck pushed her car to the curb, it rolled, and Miera was trapped as the semi's open load of sand poured on top of her.
Teachers, students and others on their way to the school tried to dig out the 48-year-old woman by hand. One counselor tried to comfort Miera as the car filled with sand.
"It was devastating," said Jacob Vigil, the attorney who has represented Miera's family in their 10-year legal fight. "The school counselor was holding her hand, praying while the sand just rose above her head, and the counselor just kept saying 'Squeeze my hand if you can hear me.' She squeezed for a while until she died."
According to the lawsuit, the semi involved in the crash had an expired registration, three brakes out of adjustment, and a driver with two DWI charges before he was hired by Albuquerque Redi-Mix.
Vigil said Tuesday the judgment offers no consolation: What he and the family hope is that their case will lead to tougher regulations and real consequences for trucking companies that are cited or fined for unsafe operations.
"This is a chronic problem across the country," Vigil said. "There are thousands and thousands of trucking deaths every year. It's 25, 50 tons of moving metal at highway speed. They're dangerous."
New Mexico District Judge Shannon Bacon entered the judgment Monday for Laura Miera's estate and her husband, Jose, and now-grown daughter, Cassandra. It includes $60 million in punitive damages.
The judgment is against Albuquerque Redi-Mix; Quintana Enterprises Inc.; the companies' owners, John and Barbara Quintana; truck driver Truman Bahe.
In a response to the lawsuit, the Quintanas denied violating any state or federal regulations and said the crash and related injuries resulted from the action of others.
A message seeking comment left Tuesday at Barbara Quintana's office was not immediately returned.
In her order, the judge wrote that the Quintanas' conduct and that of their companies continues to endanger the public and caused Miera's "slow and painful death."
Vigil said her death took an incredible toll on the family. Miera's husband was devastated, and her daughter, an A student, dropped out of school a few months later.
"A day doesn't go by when they don't think about this," Vigil said.
Cassandra Miera Camp, who is now married with two twin daughters and is going to college, testified last week at the trial. But Vigil said the young woman and her father aren't ready to talk publicly about the case.
"They're pretty broken up," he said. "They're still grieving."