The family of a man who died in a fiery crash on Interstate 78 has been awarded a verdict of $2.2 million in a nonjury proceeding before a federal judge in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
That verdict includes $100,000 in punitive damages assessed against the owner of the trucking company.
Kamilah Claxton won summary judgment in November after the defendants, Sukhwinder Singh and the trucking company for which he worked, failed to file a brief in opposition to Claxton’s motion, which was made in September. The verdict in Claxton v. Singh was issued after the court held a nonjury assessment of damages earlier this month.
“Mr. Sukhchan Singh, the employer, is liable on the basis of respondeat superior, but was also grossly negligent in failing to maintain his vehicle in compliance with state and federal law, particularly with regard to having required safety inspections and correcting defects in its braking equipment,” said U.S. District Judge William W. Caldwell of the Middle District of Pennsylvania in his opinion accompanying the verdict.
“He was also grossly negligent in entrusting his vehicle to Sukhwinder Singh, an inexperienced truck driver who had failed the written test and driving test multiple times before finally earning his commercial driving license,” Caldwell said.
Just after 3 a.m. on Nov. 13, 2009, the truck that Singh was driving from California to Connecticut entered traffic after having been stopped on the side of the road and collided with a truck driven by Eric Claxton, with Eric Burks as a passenger, according to court documents. Claxton died after the accident and Burks spent a month in the Lehigh Valley Hospital before dying.
Burks’ widow, Leatha Deener-Burks, was awarded a $2.4 million verdict a year ago.
The medical expenses for Eric Burks totaled more than $1.3 million and his funeral expenses were more than $9,000, according to the opinion issued with the Burks verdict. Caldwell considered Burks’ 2009 earnings, which were more than $58,000, when he calculated the rest of the verdict.
As he did in Claxton, Caldwell entered a judgment including $100,000 in punitive damages against Sukhchan Singh in the Burks suit.
In weighing the verdict for the Claxton case, Caldwell said, “Mr. Claxton, who died at age 36, supported a wife and four children. Mr. Claxton suffered immediate severe burns over his entire body. The accident occurred at approximately 3:10 a.m. From this time, until he was pronounced dead at 4:57 a.m., Mr. Claxton suffered severe conscious pain and suffering. His estate administration costs were $1,290.50. In 2009 he earned $49,214, and based on his earning record would have continued to earn income in the future.”
When granting summary judgment to Claxton’s family, Caldwell held that they had succeeded with their claims for negligence, vicarious liability on the part of the employer, punitive damages and wrongful death.
“Plaintiffs may be entitled to punitive damages when a defendant acts with ‘reckless indifference’ and a ‘bad motive,’” Caldwell said, quoting from the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s 1970 opinion in Focht v. Rabada. “Here, plaintiff has shown that both defendants acted with wanton and reckless indifference toward decedent.”
“Defendant Sukhwinder Singh operated the truck in a reckless manner that created a high probability of serious harm to decedent. Defendant Sukhchan Singh showed disregard for the health and safety of decedent by knowingly permitting an inexperienced driver to operate the truck,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell didn’t entertain a spousal loss of consortium claim on summary judgment from Claxton’s widow since it had never actually been properly pleaded, he said in a footnote. Beyond that, the judge explained that Pennsylvania law doesn’t allow for a loss of consortium claim where a wrongful-death action has been brought following a spouse’s death.
Caldwell quoted the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s 1986 opinion in Linebaugh v. Lehr, saying, “Recovery in a wrongful-death action includes damages for the loss of the decedent’s society, which is also the essential nature of a claim for loss of consortium. To allow a surviving spouse to maintain a separate cause of action for loss of consortium … would permit a double recovery for the same death.”
(Copies of the three-page opinion in Claxton v. Singh, PICS No. 14-0042, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •