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A Philadelphia common pleas judge has vacated the portion of a unanimous jury verdict that awarded $10 million in punitive damages to a former trucker who lost his left arm in an accident in 1999. H. Ryan Hutchinson had brought a products liability suit against Freightliner, the manufacturer of the truck Hutchinson was driving at the time of the accident, and Penske Truck Leasing Co., from whom his employer had leased the truck. In December, the 12-member jury had not cited Penske as liable in the case, captioned Hutchinson v. Freightliner. Aside from the punitive damages, Hutchinson was awarded $5.5 million in compensatory damages. In granting the defense’s post-trial motions as to the punitive damages, Judge Nitza I. Quinones Alejandro denied motions objecting to the jury’s compensatory damages award and finding of liability. An opinion outlining the judge’s reasoning is still pending, said Freightliner’s attorney, Bourne Ruthrauff of Bennett Bricklin & Saltzburg. According to court papers filed prior to the trial, Hutchinson suffered his injuries while driving a Freightliner-manufactured FLD 120 on behalf of his employer, M&M Restaurant Supply. While negotiating the curved on-ramp between New Jersey State Route 130 and Interstate 295, Hutchinson applied the brakes, but the cruise control did not disengage and allow the truck to slow down, court papers stated. The truck flipped and rolled, causing the cab’s roof to collapse. At a hospital, doctors decided that amputation was the only treatment option for the injuries to Hutchinson’s left arm. Hutchinson alleged in his complaint that a post-crash investigation revealed that his truck’s XATA computer, or “black box,” registered a failure to stop the flow of fuel to the engine after he had stepped on the brakes. Hutchinson also claimed that, despite a spate of warnings in the early 1990s by leading industry experts that many U.S. truck cab structures could not withstand a rollover, Freightliner did not subject the FLD 120 to crashworthiness tests when the model was released. (The FLD 120 Hutchinson drove was purchased in 1993.) According to the verdict sheet, the jury found that defects in the FLD 120′s cruise control and cab structure were present when the truck left Freightliner’s possession and were factual causes in bringing about Hutchinson’s injuries. The jurors also concluded that Hutchinson’s actions leading up to the accident were not reckless. In a brief requesting post-trial relief, the defense asserted that the only evidence offered during trial supporting the punitive damages award either was inadmissible or was previously excluded by the court. “Contrary to [a court] order regarding Swedish and [Economic Commission for Europe] standards, plaintiff introduced evidence that tests were available to determine the crashworthiness of the truck at issue, and that Freightliner did not conduct such tests,” Ruthrauff and co-counsel wrote in the brief. “Even were such evidence admissible (and the court correctly held that it is not), it is also insufficient to demonstrate ‘outrageous’ conduct on the part of Freightliner.” The brief stated that the jury could have been prejudiced by the repeated instances in which Hutchinson’s attorney made reference to inadmissible evidence during the trial only to have defense objections to those references sustained. Ruthrauff said that Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis partners Dennis Suplee and Nancy Winkelman, who co-authored the post-trial brief, were brought in to assist in the appellate phase of the case. Edward J. Tuite of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, whose name was also attached to the brief, represented Penske in the matter. Ruthrauff said that he expects his client to appeal to the Superior Court on the issues of the jury’s compensatory damages award and finding of liability. “We are grateful for the trial judge’s judicious review of all the evidence offered at trial,” Ruthrauff said, “and, of course, pleased with her decision to vacate the jury’s award of punitive damages. We continue to believe that our truck is safe and did not cause Mr. Hutchinson’s injuries.” Hutchinson’s lawyer, John S. Bagby Jr. of Bagby & Associates, said that his client had already filed an appeal with the Superior Court. “The jury deliberated very purposefully, and we’re disappointed that the jury’s clear determination has been taken away from them,” Bagby said. “We think juries have a right to determine punitive damages.”

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