During a long legal ordeal over the death of their son in a tragic traffic accident, Cathy and Bobby Roberts of Knoxville discovered a fact that has escaped the knowledge and scrutiny of many Tennesseans.
If you lose a family member in a wrongful death case, Tennessee law caps the amount you can recover at $750,000. Most other states have no cap.
“I am a mother who lost a child,” Cathy Roberts said. “Trent was 24 years old, and his whole life was ahead of him. We are not saying the whole law needs to be thrown out, but something reasonable and fair needs to be done for people who face the same situation as us.”
The Roberts are urging the legislature to modify the law through what they call “Trent’s Amendment.” “Modify it or let a jury decide,” Bobby Roberts said.
The Roberts have been encouraged by a decision from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in December that declared Tennessee’s cap on punitive damages unconstitutional. Some legal analysts believe the court’s reasoning may be used to strike down Tennessee’s cap on compensatory damages in personal injury cases.
Trent Roberts was killed in a devastating accident in Jefferson County in 2013.
He was returning from a fishing trip with friends and family and traveling along Interstate 40 near Dandridge as a passenger in a Chevrolet Tahoe driven by a friend. Trent’s father was in a vehicle behind the Tahoe with their other son, Tyler.
Across the interstate, a bus carrying a church group back to Statesville, North Carolina, from a trip to Gatlinburg suddenly suffered a blown tire and tread/belt separation in a Hankook tire, causing the bus to cross the interstate and strike the vehicle in which Trent was a passenger head-on.
Trent was killed on impact and thrown out the back window of the Tahoe by the force of the collision. Six people in the church bus and the driver of a tractor-trailer truck also were killed. The blown tire was identified as the cause of the October 2013 accident.
In the car behind the Tahoe, Bobby Roberts watched the accident happen. When he saw the collision, he shouted Trent’s name and pulled into the median.
He ran ahead and asked his son’s friends, who were dazed but escaped serious injury, “Where’s Trent?” They didn’t know, and the father turned and looked right into the woods next to the interstate. He saw Trent’s body, where it had been ejected from the Tahoe.
When he got to the spot, he knew that Trent had been killed instantly. His other son, Tyler, came up. Bobby Roberts placed his hand on Trent’s body and said, “He’s gone.” He prayed, “Lord, I know you will take care of him.”
Church members and the Roberts’ family sued the manufacturer, Hankook, a South Korean tire company, saying the tire was negligently and defectively manufactured and designed. The Roberts visited church survivors in the hospital in North Carolina, and – through Random Acts of Flowers – sent Trent’s funeral bouquets to them. They have stayed in touch with the North Carolina families.
Bypassing the Roberts, Hankook approached the church members, many of them elderly, and settled their claims against the company. Represented by high-powered defense attorneys armed with the knowledge of the Tennessee cap, Hankook prolonged the North Carolina case brought by the Roberts with repeated delays. Just prior to the case going to trial in December, Hankook reached a confidential settlement with the Roberts.
During their long legal struggle, the Roberts became concerned about the cap in wrongful death cases. They decided they want to help other families who may suffer the same tragic circumstances. The Roberts want the law modified to honor Trent’s memory, and they deem the proposed change as Trent’s Amendment. The Roberts are discussing possible changes in the law with area legislators.
They also are closely following the legal steps subsequent to the Sixth Circuit ruling that the Tennessee cap on punitive damages violates the right to a trial by jury.
Trent was a quiet young man. His life was work, home and fishing. He was to take over his father’s job running a manufacturing plant in Powell, Tennessee.
“We want to keep another family from going through this,” Bobby Roberts said. “I want to tell Trent in Heaven that I did all I could.”
Cathy and Bobby Roberts shared their story with WBIR Channel 10 in Knoxville. The television clips can be viewed below.