Randy Sorrels’ $350 Million Verdict
How the Houston attorney changed the life of a catastrophically injured airport worker
Published in 2022 Texas Super Lawyers magazine on September 20, 2022
Last October, in one of the largest jury awards ever handed down in Harris County, a Houston jury gave former United Airlines employee Ulysses Cruz $352.7 million for injuries he suffered on the tarmac.
“It’s the largest actual-damages jury verdict for an injured worker in a contested trial in the United States’ history,” says former State Bar of Texas president Randy Sorrels, who represented 50-year-old Cruz.
On Sept. 7, 2019, Cruz was working as a “wing walker” at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, using orange wands to direct the movement of aircraft. He was wearing the required yellow safety vest while guiding a plane away from a gate when he was struck by an Allied Aviation Fueling Co. van.
“It was 7:30 in the morning,” Sorrels says, “and the van driver said that he was blinded by the sun and didn’t see Mr. Cruz, who was walking back near the roadway. The roadway is just lines; on an airport tarmac, they don’t have curbs. So Mr. Cruz was walking toward the roadway when the van driver ran off the road and hit him, knocked him about 15 feet in the air. He was immediately paralyzed from the chest down.”
In addition to impact injuries, Cruz suffered a stroke that further debilitated him, leaving him with no use of his right arm.
“He’s unable to carry on a full conversation, yet knows what’s going on. So if you talk about something sad or about his situation, he would cry tears. He’s really trapped in his body. Mr. Cruz is simply the worst-hurt person I’ve ever seen in my life.”
At the trial, the van driver denied running off the road and claimed that Cruz had stepped out in front of him—a claim that Sorrels countered with video of the incident as well as other direct and circumstantial evidence.
“On cross-examination in trial, the safety supervisor, when asked to give a grade to their driver, gave him a D,” Sorrels says. “After a few minutes of going over facts, the safety supervisor concluded that their driver was acting recklessly and changed his grade from a D to an F. The driver himself said that he would give himself a B. … They suspended the driver for a short period of time and then they brought him back on.”
Sorrels made use of another video during the two-week trial: an online livestream of the proceedings, which has become common practice in the age of COVID-19. Sorrels took time each day to gather feedback from friends in the legal community who were watching.
“Randy’s work ethic and his preparation are second to none,” says E.A. “Trey” Apffel III, executive director of the State Bar of Texas.
To help the jury sympathize with the victim, Sorrels put several of Cruz’s health care providers on the stand to explain what he’d gone through, what he was still going through, and what the rest of his life would be like.
“We brought in video of what a typical day would be like for Mr. Cruz, and that video was narrated by his morning nurse, his physical therapist, his occupational therapist, and his wife, who is also a nurse,” says Sorrels. “She really did a great job of separating out her clinical view of her husband and then her emotional view of the husband and father they lost.”
Sorrels’ wife and partner, personal injury attorney Alex Farias-Sorrels, performed much of the behind-the-scenes work on the Cruz case, including coming up with a figure for the damages. “One of Alex’s family members has a very similar type of circumstance with their limitations and function,” says Sorrels. “And we knew within our hearts that asking for $352 million was not a stretch. It was a reasonable amount and a just amount that the jury understood.”
“I don’t think [Cruz] could have chosen a better lawyer,” says Apffel. “Randy worked up the case as only Randy could, and he achieved a phenomenal result on behalf of the client.”
Winning this verdict was just the latest achievement in Sorrels’ remarkable career. He started doing personal injury defense work at then-Fulbright & Jaworski in 1987 before shifting over to representing plaintiffs.
“I felt that the people who were on the injured side often needed more help,” he says. “I thought that was a good way to help people who really needed help but maybe couldn’t afford the types of lawyers you could get at a big firm. I thought I might be able to level the playing field a little bit.”
He spent the next 30 years working for Abraham Watkins, including 25 as managing partner, before co-launching his own firm with his wife in 2021. He has represented clients ranging from superstars like Ozzy Osbourne (in a car accident case) to low-income people whose livelihoods have been ruined. When the pandemic began, Sorrels was serving as president of the state Bar (2019-2020).
“COVID hit all professions,” Sorrels says. “Were we essential workers? Were we risking lives? The unknown for Texas lawyers had to be converted to some guidance from our state Bar—and I will say the administration and staff at the state Bar stepped up quickly. I give all of the credit to the state Bar folks in Austin.”
Says Apffel, “Randy is dedicated and passionate to his clients and to his profession and to the rule of law. He’s a fierce litigator and a determined leader. We are frankly very fortunate to have him as a leader in our profession.”
His impact is also felt in the local community, especially at his alma mater, South Texas College of Law Houston, which hosts 23 Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics per year, providing free legal assistance valued around $1.8 million annually.
Before Cruz won his verdict, he was receiving what Sorrels calls “bare-minimum workers’ comp medical care.” But now, there is a glimmer of hope. “The area of cognitive reconnection is a growing area of medicine,” says Sorrels, “so he’ll have the money, if something experimental comes out, to dive into re-growing nerve endings and brainwave paths that may have been lost in the stroke. He can be on the cutting edge of recovery in an area that’s rapidly expanding and growing.”