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A Philadelphia jury has awarded $20 million to an immigrant mother of three whose right arm was crushed during an industrial accident in November 2001, when she was 24 years old. Sources in court administration confirmed that the verdict in Leyva v. International Surface Preparation Corp. was the largest handed up by a city jury in 2005 so far. Guillermina Leyva filed suit against the manufacturer of the machine her arm was crushed against when a co-worker accidentally ran into her with a forklift. Leyva claimed that Wheelabrator Corp. — the business-purposes name of International Surface — had not installed proper guarding around the control box of the machine she was using when Wheelabrator delivered it to her employer, Cardone Industries, in 1988. According to court papers, Leyva’s formal demand was for $1 million. Her attorney, Robert Brand of Wilk Brand & Silver, said the defense’s highest offer was for $90,000. The parties did not reach any pretrial agreement that will affect the size of the jury’s award, according to Brand. Defense counsel John Hatzell of the Law Offices of Lawrence P. Engrissei said he was surprised by the size of the jury’s award, given the comparatively low demand/offer figures discussed by the parties. Hatzell said he would soon file post-trial motions seeking JNOV and a new trial. Hatzell declined to comment on the size of Wheelabrator’s liability policy. According to court papers, when the accident occurred Leyva had been working at Cardone, which specializes in auto parts remanufacturing, for five years since emigrating from Mexico. The Wheelabrator-manufactured machine Leyva was operating on the day of the accident was a tumble blaster, which, according to court papers, is fed used auto parts via forklift and then processes them before they are remanufactured. When the accident occurred, Leyva was preparing to operate her machine; her right hand was hooked around the side of the right-angled control box. While in that position, according to court papers, a co-worker approached the side of the control box in a forklift, accidentally crushing Leyva’s upper right arm against the box. Leyva asserted in court papers that it was Wheelabrator’s duty to oversee installation of the tumble blasters it delivered over the years to Cardone, including ensuring that the control boxes of the machines were safeguarded so as to protect operators from having their arms crushed against the boxes. A plaintiff’s safety-engineering expert noted in his report that the control box on Leyva’s machine was situated in such a way that its operator needed to place her arm in the lane of forklift traffic in order to turn the machine on and off. Leyva also pointed out in court papers that a number of Cardone’s other tumble blasters had had their control boxes safeguarded in such a way as to prevent the sort of accident that resulted in her injury. The defense countered that the accident was “solely caused” by Leyva’s co-worker, and that Leyva’s machine had been moved twice within the Cardone plant between the time it was delivered and the day of the accident. The right-handed Leyva said in court papers that the accident has rendered her right arm almost useless; she can no longer pick up her children nor perform simple household chores. She has undergone 12 surgical procedures, and is expected to need two more in the future for scar revision, Brand said. Brand said that during the trial, he introduced as evidence some of the sewing samples of Leyva, whom he described as an accomplished seamstress. The jury also heard testimony that she was actively involved in a local basketball league. The defense did not contest the severity of the plaintiff’s injuries at the time of trial, Brand added. Leyva and her husband’s three children are aged 7, 4 and 1, according to court papers. Her entire work history consists of jobs performed for Cardone. She cannot speak or write English, cannot write Spanish and was not educated past the sixth grade. Hatzell said the trial began before Judge Victor J. DiNubile Jr. on Dec. 12 and ended late in the day Dec. 15. The seven-member jury reached its unanimous decision after under two hours’ deliberations. (The panel had originally included eight jurors, Hatzell said, but one was excused midway due to a family emergency, and the trial proceeded before a seven-member panel.) The parties did not have the chance to discuss with the jurors the reasons behind their reaching their decision. Brand said he believes the jurors took into account the impact the accident had not only on Leyva’s work capabilities, but also her personal life. “This is what juries are for,” Brand said. “Otherwise, there would be a chart that delineated, ‘if you have X injury, you get Y amount of dollars.’” According to The Legal Intelligencer‘s analysis of Philadelphia common pleas verdicts in 2005, the second-largest award so far this year was for slightly less than $10.3 million. However, the verdict in Thou v. Yan — a case that stemmed from the death in an auto accident of four, mainly immigrant, packing factory workers — was handed down by Judge Sandra Mazer Moss, who presided over the trial in the matter.

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