Dealership that sold scraper in question on the hook for $2.1 million in actual, punitive damages

Caterpillar Inc., the world’s largest maker of bulldozers, must pay $54.2 million in damages to a worker paralyzed by an accident involving one of the company’s earth-moving tractors, a Texas jury ruled.

Jurors in state court in San Antonio deliberated more than three hours yesterday before holding Caterpillar and one of its distributors liable for Alfonso Lopez’s injuries tied to its line of Wheel Tractor 623 G Scrapers.

The panel ordered the companies to pay a total of $15.8 million in actual damages and $40.5 million in punitive damages over Lopez’s claims that electronic-control defects caused the machines to unexpectedly bounce. Lopez alleged that Caterpillar delayed addressing the defects for two years.

“If companies don’t put safety first, juries will hold them accountable,” Mark Lanier, Lopez’s Houston-based lawyer, said after the jury returned its verdict.

Jim Dugan, a Caterpillar spokesman, declined to comment on the award. W.T. Womble, a Houston-based attorney who represented the company in the case, said he “respects the jury’s verdict” in an interview after the award was announced.

Caterpillar’s fourth-quarter profit fell 65 percent to $232 million as the global recession curbed demand for bulldozers and excavators, the Peoria, Illinois-based company said Jan. 27. Sales last year dropped 37 percent, the biggest single-year percentage decline since the 1940s.

‘Dramatically Bouncing’

Lopez, 41, says he was using one of the scrapers, which sells for $518,000, to help build a subdivision north of Dallas in August 2006 when the machine “suddenly and without warning began dramatically bouncing up and down,” according to court papers.

The scraper’s bucking caused Lopez’s seat to fail and slammed him against the machine’s frame, Lanier said. Lopez suffered spinal injuries and a punctured lung in the accident and is now paralyzed from the waist down, Lanier told jurors.

Caterpillar was ordered by the jury to pay 90 percent of the actual damages, or $14.2 million, plus $40 million of the punitive damages, said Patrick O’Hara, a lawyer for Lopez.

Holt Texas Ltd., the dealership that sold the scraper, was held liable for 10 percent of the actual damages and $500,000 in punitives, or a total of $2.1 million, O’Hara said.

G. Wade Caldwell, a lawyer for Holt Texas, declined to comment.

Peter Holt, chairman and chief executive officer of Holt Texas, is the majority owner of the National Basketball Association’s San Antonio Spurs.

The case is Alfonzo Lopez v. Caterpillar Inc., 2007-CI- 1586, District Court for Bexar County, 224th Judicial District (San Antonio).