A trial over a fatal accident on I-83 near York, Pa.—in which a car was thrust by a tractor-trailer over a Jersey barrier to be struck head-on by another speeding truck—has ended with a $3.8 million verdict in federal court for the family of the woman who died in the crash.
Timothy Gunther, the husband of the deceased Susan Gunther, brought a wrongful-death suit against the automobile shipping company and its driver who was operating the tractor-trailer that pushed Susan Gunther’s car over the barrier. The car transport company settled before trial for an undisclosed amount.
Also named as a defendant was the baked goods company and its driver who was operating the delivery truck that hit Gunther’s car after it was flung into the opposite lane. It didn’t settle and was found by the jury to be responsible for 25 percent of the negligence contributing to the accident, leaving it to pay $950,000.
The three-day jury trial was held in front of U.S. District Senior Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
In their pretrial memos, the two defendants stressed the role played by the other in the accident that decapitated Gunther and severed her left arm at the shoulder.
Referring to Alan Hubbell, who was driving the car-carrying tractor-trailer for Dependable Auto Shippers, lawyers for the baking company said in their memo, “Mr. Hubbell changed lanes oblivious to the presence of Ms. Gunther. Mr. Hubbell claims he never saw Ms. Gunther’s vehicle before, during, and after changing lanes until he subsequently looked in his mirror and saw her tumbling into oncoming traffic.”
In the early afternoon on May 30, 2011, a Monday, Gunther was headed back to New York after dropping her daughter off at nursing school in York, Pa. She was driving north on the four-lane divided highway in the left lane when Hubbell’s truck began shifting from the right lane toward her.
Gunther’s Subaru Impreza was pushed onto the three-foot concrete barrier dividing the highway and was dragged for 166 feet before landing on the other side, facing southbound traffic.
“Mr. Hubbell offers no reason for not seeing her,” the Schmidt Baking Co.’s pretrial memo said. “Equipped with multiple mirrors, he admitted that there were no blind spots around his vehicle other than directly behind it.”
The pretrial memo submitted for the auto carrier, however, characterized the situation this way: “He went to change from the right lane to the left lane and apparently did not see Ms. Gunther on his left. He hit Ms. Gunther, pushed her over the Jersey barrier and into the southbound lanes of Interstate 83.”
“At that point, a violent collision occurred when Royal Stewart, driving for defendant Schmidt Baking Company, proceeding southbound on Interstate 83, collided with Ms. Gunther’s vehicle and killed her. She was decapitated in this loss,” the memo said.
Information gathered from the black box on the bakery truck indicated that Stewart was driving 71 miles an hour. That stretch of road is marked for a 55 mph limit.
Dependable Auto Shippers offered the court an expert witness to testify that if Stewart had been driving 55 mph, he would have had enough time to stop, avoiding a collision with Gunther.
“The fatality was caused solely by the reckless and unlawful driving of Royal Stewart for Schmidt Baking Company,” the auto shipper’s memo said.
The baking company’s memo, though, cast it this way: “Ms. Gunther’s car was pushed into the path of Schmidt Baking’s truck traveling in the opposite direction. Its driver, Royal Stewart, was in the left lane passing other vehicles when suddenly confronted with something thrust over the barrier and into his lane.
“Mr. Stewart applied the brakes while steering in an attempt to avoid the vehicles to his right and Ms. Gunther’s vehicle that was suddenly [put in] his path by Mr. Hubbell.”
The jury rejected the argument that Schmidt Baking should be able to claim protection under Pennsylvania’s sudden emergency law, which effectively absolves a negligent defendant of liability in a situation where he faced a sudden emergency not of his own creation.
Mark Richter of Jeffrey R. Lessin & Associates, who represented the Gunther family with Jeffrey Lessin, described the little-used doctrine as a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” It isn’t often used, he explained, because there aren’t often circumstances that would allow for it—most accident cases where it might be applicable involve a vehicle that has suddenly stopped, but that scenario is governed by the “assured clear distance rule.”
The jury decided that the sudden emergency doctrine wouldn’t apply to this case.
It found that both defendants were negligent—attributing 75 percent of the negligence to Dependable Auto Shippers and 25 percent to Schmidt Baking.
Since the auto shipper settled before trial, it is unaffected by the jury award.
Schmidt Baking, however, offered first to settle for $25,000 before the trial started and then for $100,000 after the trial had gotten under way, according to Lessin.
The bakery’s share of the verdict is $950,000, given the jury’s apportionment of 25 percent responsibility.
The $3.8 million jury verdict is the biggest to come out of Buckwalter’s court since 1991, according to the judge’s courtroom deputy, Matthew Higgins.
Richter said the jurors had a difficult assignment in weighing the case.
“The jury saw the Gunther family and saw what this did to the Gunther family and tried to, as fairly as possible, put a number on something very difficult to put a number on,” Richter said of the jury’s verdict.
The total estimated damages submitted by the plaintiffs was $1.3 million, considering Gunther’s lost wages, benefits and household services. Gunther was a schoolteacher with four children and a husband of 30 years.
Douglas Marcello of Marcello & Kivisto in Carlisle, Pa., represented Schmidt Baking and did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
David White of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin represented Dependable Auto Shippers and did not return a telephone call seeking comment.