The state Superior Court has upheld a $10.5 million award to a woman who was injured in a car accident caused by an out-of-control dump truck.
A three-judge panel in Kuchwara v. Williams and Valvano Construction upheld Monday a Luzerne County jury verdict and delay damages in favor of plaintiff Holly Ann Kuchwara and her husband. The verdict was divided into $9.1 million for compensatory damages, about $1 million in punitives, and was supplemented by $386,717 in delay damages.
The defendants in the case were Valvano Construction, the owner of the truck, and driver Theodus Williams.
In denying the defendants’ request for a new trial, Senior Judge William H. Platt wrote in the court’s opinion that the plaintiffs experts’ testimony that lack of maintenance of the truck—including faulty brakes—constituted “reckless indifference” was not prejudicial as Valvano had asserted.
“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 the vehicles,’” Platt said.
Another of Valvano’s employees, according to Platt, testified that failure to keep vehicle reports, certify the trucks with the Public Utility Commission, or to inspect vehicles showed an indifference to safety.
“Thus, where [Valvano Construction's] own witnesses conceded the level of indifference exhibited by its agents,” Platt said, “it failed to prove that ‘actual prejudice occurred’ by expert testimony on the ultimate issue of reckless indifference.”
The accident occurred May 7, 2010, in Scranton. While Williams was driving Valvano’s dump truck, according to Platt, the brakes failed as the truck went downhill at 45 miles per hour. Williams crashed into a vehicle that then rear-ended Kuchwara.
Kuchwara suffered several injuries, including lacerations to her face and multiple fractures. Platt said Kuchwara was permanently scarred from the incident and subsequent surgeries and she still experiences pain.
After a monthlong trial that began Aug. 27, 2012, it was determined that out of eight brakes on the truck, only three were functional, Platt said. Additionally, the steering wheel needed maintenance and the speedometer and the vehicle’s safety alarms were inoperable.
On appeal, Valvano argued that it was entitled to a new trial because the court should not have split the trial into compensatory and punitive damages phases. Valvano contended that the compensatory damages award was “inflated” with punitive damages.
According to Platt, the jury was properly instructed as to the nature of compensatory and punitive damages.
Of the $9.1 million awarded for compensatory damages, $2 million was designated for future medical expenses and $624,000 was given for future wage losses, Platt said. The amounts were lower than what the plaintiffs experts said would be appropriate.
“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,” Platt said.
Valvano also claimed that the trial court should not have permitted a remark from Kuchwara’s lawyer that the jury should “send a message” with its compensatory damages award and in regard to the defendants’ “reckless indifference,” according to Platt.
However, Platt said the remark about sending a message was actually made by Valvano’s own counsel.
“Furthermore, at the time of the remark, counsel for [Kuchwara] was discussing [Valvano's] failure to comply with regulatory standards, which he argued supported a finding of reckless indifference, not a damages calculation,” Platt said.
Platt also pointed out that Valvano’s counsel never asked that a curative instruction be made to the jury.
In a second opinion in response to a separate appeal made by Williams, Platt denied a new trial based on claims identical to those made in the Valvano appeal as well as one unique claim involving jury instruction on Williams’ per se negligence.
According to Platt, Williams argued the trial court failed to instruct the jury as to which specific statutes or regulations he allegedly violated. He further argued that none of the motor vehicle statutes at issue in the case applied to him.
“On review, we conclude that this jury instruction more than adequately instructed the jury about the negligence and related sections of the Vehicle Code,” Platt said. “Furthermore, to the extent that [Williams] argues that he was prejudiced, this claim must fail because the jury was not asked to find [Williams] negligent per se.”
John G. Dean of Elliott Greenleaf & Dean represented Valvano, and Mark Sheridan of Margolis Edelstein represented Williams. Neither returned calls seeking comment.
A call seeking comment to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Joseph A. Quinn of Hourigan, Kluger & Quinn in Kingston, Pa., was not returned.
(Copies of the 21-page opinion in Kuchwara v. Williams and Valvano Construction, PICS No. 14-0735, and the 17-page opinion in Kuchwara v. Williams and Valvano Construction, PICS No. 14-0750, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •