A Fairfax County Circuit Court jury has awarded $2 million to the family of a 19-year-old Northern Virginia woman who has been in a low-grade coma since the car in which she was riding slammed into a tree on a rainy night three years ago.
The jury of four men and three women deliberated for two hours Wednesday evening before returning the award against 19-year-old John Paul Thompson Jr. of Fairfax County, who was driving the car.
One of his passengers, Laura Wynkoop, a freshman at Marshall High School near Falls Church, suffered extensive brain damage in the Jan. 11, 1980, accident and will require hospital care for the rest of her life, according to testimony in the two-day trial. She is blind in one eye and cannot speak. Family members testified that the only sign she recognizes her family is an occasional smile.
The jury awarded the woman's father, Charles, $1.5 million for medical bills and Laura $500,000 for pain, suffering and other damages. Lawyers said the verdict is one of the largest awards recently made by a state court in an automobile negligence suit in Northern Virginia.
The Wynkoop family attorney, Robert J. Arthur, said he does not know how much of the $2 million the Wynkoop family will recover from Thompson, who is unemployed. The young man's lawyer said he expects insurance to cover part of the award.
Arthur had argued that Thompson, who was driving with a learner's permit, lost control of the car when it hit a large puddle on Oak Street in the Pimmit Hills section of Fairfax and slammed into a tree. Wynkoop, a passenger in the back seat, absorbed most of the impact. Thompson and one other passenger in the vehicle suffered minor injuries. A third passenger was not injured.
Thompson's attorney, Charles F. Geschickter Jr., said the jury handled the "tragic case in a very intelligent, sophisticated manner. They indicated: 'We'll do what we can for her without trying to hurt anybody else.' "
Geschickter had argued that Thompson "was not negligent -- it was an unavoidable accident that would have happened to anybody in the same circumstances."
Judge Lewis H. Griffith dismissed the Wynkoop family's lawsuits against Thompson's parents and his sister, Tina, who had lent the car to Thompson, saying family members were not negligent in allowing Thompson to drive the car and could not be held responsible for the incident.
Wynkoop's hospital bills have totaled $253,000 since the January 1980 accident, according to family attorneys. She is hospitalized at the Loudoun County Memorial Family Hospital Long Term Care Center, where family members visit her five days a week.