PA Appellate Court Affirms Multi-Million Dollar Award to Victim of Dump Truck Accident

By: Christopher J. Hoare, Esq.

On May 7, 2010, defendant Theodus Williams was driving a dump truck in the course of employment of co-defendant Valvano Construction. He lost control of the vehicle and careened down a hill at more than 45 miles per hour. Williams struck the car of Steven and Doreen Mazur from the rear, propelling their car forward into plaintiff Holly Ann Kuchwara’s car. Kuchwara was injured in the accident, suffering lacerations to her face and fractures to her leg, ankle, and back. Her injuries necessitated surgery, and left her with scars, an altered gait, and lingering pain.

Kuchwara brought suit against both the truck driver, TheodusWilliams, and his employer, Valvano Construction. In the course of the month-long trial, it was revealed that at the time of the accident only three (3) of the truck’s eight (8) brakes were operational, that the steering wheel required maintenance, and that the speedometer and safety alarms on the truck were inoperable. The jury awarded plaintiff Kuchwara $9.1 million in compensatory damages, nearly $1 million in punitive damages, and $386,717 in delay damages.

Defendant Valvano appealed the verdict. Senior Judge William H. Platt rejected Valvano’s claim that it had been prejudiced by plaintiff’s expert witness, who testified that lack of proper maintenance of the truck constituted “reckless indifference.” Platt opined:

Furthermore, the record supports the trial court’s observation that [Valvano Construction] was not prejudiced by this testimony. [Valvano Construction’s] own witness, John Valvano Jr., conceded that ‘the company was indifferent to the safety of their vehicles.

A second plaintiff’s witness testified that Valvano did not maintain vehicle reports, nor certify the vehicles with the Public Utility Commission, nor inspect the vehicles. This witness testified that this exhibited an indifference to safety on the part of Valvano.

Valvano also argued that it deserved a new trial due to the court erroneously splitting the initial trial into compensatory and punitive stages, arguing that the compensatory stage influenced and inflated the punitive damages awarded by the jury. The $9.1 million in compensatory damages were structured such that $2 million was designated for ongoing medical expenses and $624,000 was allocated for future wages losses. Platt said:

In light of the fact that the jury’s compensatory damages award was more modest than the estimates of [Kuchwara’s] experts, we may presume that the jury did not inflate the award with punitive damages after being instructed on the specific nature of what their award should consider.

Additionally, Valvano alleged that a statement made by Kuchwara’s lawyer suggesting that the jury should “send a message” to the company and industry in general with its damages award should not have been allowed by the judge. The court disagreed, noting that the remark was in fact made by Valvano’s own attorney.

In response to a separate appeal by defendant Williams, the driver of the truck, the court denied a new trial. Williams argued that the jury had not been properly informed of the statutes or regulations that Williams was accused of violating. Judge Platt dismissed Williams’ argument, noting that the jury had received sufficient instructions upon which to assess liability and award damages.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court ultimately upheld the $10.5 million jury verdict in favor of the Plaintiff.