The $3.6 million wrongful death judgment to the widow of a mechanic who was crushed by a tractor-trailer was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit this week.
Trans National Trucking, which owned the vehicle, argued on appeal that the mechanic carried some “contributory negligence” for the accident. It also argued that the district court had erred by barring it from referring to the man’s previous conviction during trial and by letting the jury see photographs of his body after the accident.
Answering Trans National’s request for a new trial, the three-judge panel of the Third Circuit said in Conlon v. Trans National, “We see no basis for granting this extraordinary relief and will affirm.” Senior Judge Ruggero Aldisert wrote the opinion on behalf of the unanimous panel, which included Judges Dolores Sloviter and Thomas Ambro.
A jury had awarded damages in 2011, which was upheld by a federal magistrate judge later that year.
Trans National argued that Jared Conlon, who was crushed by a truck that he had been called out by his mobile maintenance company to fix, was partially responsible for the accident.
“Appellants had every opportunity to retain a mechanic expert to evaluate, comment on and, if appropriate, criticize Conlon’s conduct. They failed to do so,” Aldisert said, referring to Trans National’s conduct during the trial.
After Conlon had been summoned to fix the brakes on a truck that had been stopped by police as it was passing through Pennsylvania, he asked the driver to put the truck in gear and pump the brakes in order to bleed the pressure out of the lines. Conlon worked for several hours, raising one side of the truck with a bottle jack, according to the opinion.
So that he could listen for a leak in the system’s tubing, Conlon asked the driver to start the truck and he proceeded to crawl under it while the driver turned the engine, which was still in gear.
“Tragically, as a result of the truck still being in gear, it immediately lunged forward, knocking itself from the bottle jack. A U-bolt on the truck’s undercarriage crushed Conlon’s skull, killing him instantly,” Aldisert said. “He left a wife and two sons, ages 4 and 1.”
Trans National objected to the roughly $2 million that the jury awarded for his children’s “loss of guidance, tutelage, and moral upbringing” and argued that the district court should have remitted the sum.
The company hadn’t properly preserved the issue for appeal, the court said. But, beyond that, Katrina Conlon, Jared Conlon’s once-estranged wife, had testified at trial to her deceased husband’s activities with their children, which spoke to the portion of the Wrongful Death Act that allows for recovery of damages for “the loss of companionship, comfort, society and guidance of a parent,” according to the opinion.
That section is also known as the “loss of services in guidance, tutelage, and moral upbringing,” Aldisert said, citing the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s 1979 opinion in Buchecker v. Reading.
Trans National also disagreed with the trial court’s refusal to admit into evidence parts of Katrina Conlon’s divorce petition, which it excluded in order to keep Jared Conlon’s previous criminal convictions out of the courtroom, according to the opinion.
The trial court barred any reference to Jared Conlon’s convictions, Aldisert said, after it had weighed “the probative value of such evidence against the danger of unfair prejudice.”
Trans National had argued that Conlon’s criminal fines should have been calculated into the loss-of-future-earnings figure.
The Third Circuit disagreed.
It also disagreed with the trucking company’s argument that the trial court had abused its discretion by allowing the jury to see two photographs of Conlon’s body after the accident. Because diagrams of his injuries were also shown to the jury, it argued that the photographs were “unfairly prejudicial and needlessly cumulative,” according to the opinion.
“Naturally, my client and I were happy,” said David Colleran of the Third Circuit’s opinion. Colleran has a practice in Philadelphia and represented Katrina Conlon.
The award given by the jury certainly wasn’t excessive, Colleran said, noting that Jared Conlon was a 26-year-old man with small children and a steady work history.
William Connor, of Christie Pabarue Mortensen and Young in Philadelphia, represented Trans National on appeal and couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
(Copies of the 12-page opinion in Conlon v. Trans National, PICS No. 12-2264, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •