The estate of an 11-year-old Arkansas boy killed when his stepfather crashed a company car has sued the company’s insurance carriers for payment of a $3.4 million judgment.
In October, a Washington County Circuit Court jury awarded $3.4 million to the administrator for the estate of the boy, Tyner Hammitt. Hammitt’s family had sued his stepfather, Michael Guest, and the company he worked for, Spectrum Paint Co. of Tulsa, alleging they were negligent because Guest had been drinking beer at a customer’s house before the fatal crash on Jan. 3, 2019.
After a three-day trial, jurors cleared Spectrum of negligence, deciding that Guest was responsible. The $3.4 million to the estate was for loss of life, conscious pain and suffering and medical and funeral expenses. Guest, 41, pleaded guilty in February 2020 to negligent homicide and endangering the welfare of a minor, both felonies, and a charge of driving while intoxicated. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Hammitt’s mother, Amanda Hammitt of Siloam Springs, was awarded $1.1 million, but that amount was later cut to zero because Guest was acting as the boy’s parent at the time of the accident. Guest and Amanda Hammitt remain married.
Last month, Brandon Rogers of Proctor, Oklahoma, the boy’s half-brother and the administrator of the estate, filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville seeking a judgement requiring Spectrum’s insurance carriers to cover the claims to pay the judgment.
Spectrum’s policy with Travelers Property Casualty Co. of America provides coverage of up to $1 million, and the company’s policy with Great American Insurance Co. of Cincinnati provides coverage of up to $10 million.
Rogers also sought attorneys’ fees and costs. The family’s attorneys at the Etoch Law Firm of Helena are seeking $1.36 million in attorneys’ fees and $18,560 in costs. As of Wednesday, Washington County Circuit Court Judge Doug Martin hadn’t ruled on the issue. Great American had not responded to the estate as of Nov. 22, the federal lawsuit said. Travelers was reviewing the estate’s claim to determine whether coverage applies, the suit said. “At the time of the accident Michael Guest was taking notes related to a large paint project, which he had been discussing with a Spectrum customer earlier in the evening,” the suit said.
On Jan. 3, 2019, Guest was driving Spectrum’s 2018 Ford F-Series truck in sleet and mist in Siloam Springs when a stoplight turned yellow. “So I put on my brake and … it didn’t stop at all,” Guest said in a July 2020 deposition. The truck hydroplaned into an ornamental pond. Critically hurt, Tyner died a week later.
“This was a difficult case because of the tragic … death of Tyner,” Spectrum’s attorney, Clifford Plunkett in the Rogers office of the law firm Friday Eldredge & Clark, told Arkansas Business via email. “I was pleased that the jury found that Spectrum Paint was not responsible for the accident and that its policies were appropriate based on the facts. The evidence showed that Spectrum Paint does not encourage or allow employees to operate company vehicles if the employee’s ability to do so is impaired, affected or influenced by alcohol or drugs.”
As of Wednesday, neither Travelers nor Great American had filed a response in the case. Neither company responded to messages from Arkansas Business.
Tips for Providing Company Vehicles
Employment lawyer Stuart Jackson of Wright Lindsey Jennings of Little Rock, who wasn’t involved in the lawsuit involving the estate of Tyner Hammitt, told Arkansas Business that companies that allow an employee to drive a company car should consider:
► Asking the obvious question — does the employee have a valid driver’s license?
► Inquiring about the employee’s recent driving record, citations or tickets, and accidents. Employers might want to think twice about giving a company car to someone with an unacceptable driving record.
► Requiring the employee to have some minimum level of insurance.
► Written policies that make clear the employee shouldn’t drive while impaired or distracted; some may require that the car be used for business purposes only.
► That written policy should also make clear the consequences for driving while impaired or distracted. And if a company is going to have a written policy, it better be ready to follow it consistently.