Debbie’s Story

On March 10, 2010, Debbie Harrell was a 52-year-old mother of three. She had two grandchildren, her mother was still living, and she had ten brothers and sisters. Debbie worked as an over-the-road truck driver for CR England. She attended the Faith Assembly of God Church in Hertford, North Carolina where her brother Phillip was the pastor. Her children, grandchildren, and siblings all attended the same church.

Debbie was very close to her children and grandchildren, and although she provided a small amount of financial support for them, the primary support that she provided was emotional. Her daughter Sherry Stevenson, described it this way:

“She was our biggest fan. Her family was just her life, not just like a mother loves her children, like a grandmother loves her grandchildren, like we were her life, like the joy that she took out of my niece and nephew. She hated going on the road. She hated going back to work because she missed them so much. She would cry when she left. They cried when she left….[h]ow do you say in words what it’s like to lose somebody? You feel like your heart is being ripped out. To try to reconcile “never” in our mind, to say that I’ll never see her again, to say that we’re going to graduate college and she’s never going to be there, never going to be there for weddings, never going to be there for Kaiya and DJ’s first day of school, as much as she loved them…”

On March 10, 2010 near the eastbound lanes of Interstate 40 near Russellville, Debbie Harrell burned to death in the cab of her tractor-trailer when an employee of Johnson Food Equipment fell asleep at the wheel at 6:30 a.m., crashed into the rear of another vehicle and blocked the road. Debbie swerved in an effort to avoid the disabled truck and crashed through the guard rail. Her truck overturned and caught on fire. Her body was burned beyond recognition.

There aren’t words to adequately describe Mrs. Harrell’s pain and suffering, but expert testimony from a forensic pathologist included the following:

  • The evidence establishes that she was screaming for help, screaming from the pain, panicking to get out of the subject tractor, and fully aware that she may be getting ready to die.
  • The evidence establishes that she took into her airway superheated air, soot and carbonaceous debris. The excruciating pain she would have experienced and the suffering she would have endured as her airway was essentially burnt is so great it cannot be quantified.
  • Her carbon monoxide levels indicate that she had time to go through the various levels of consciousness including clouding of her consciousness due to the laden air she was breathing in and the burning her body experienced, confusional state, delirium and stupor before she was overcome by the fire and finally died.

Obviously Mrs. Harrell had no medical bills. The financial support that she provided for her children and grandchildren was minimal. The value of this case consisted almost entirely of non-economic damages for pain and suffering, loss of life and the mental anguish of her children, mother and siblings. If Issue 1 had been in effect at the time, this case would have been worth no more than $500,000 which would have resulted in a gross miscarriage of justice.