Date of Verdict: April 9.
Court and Case No.: C.P. Philadelphia No. 120502939.
Judge: Albert J. Snite Jr.
Type of Action: Wrongful death.
Plaintiffs Counsel: Michael A. Trunk, Kline & Specter, Philadelphia.
Defense Counsel: Andrew J. Kramer, Kane, Pugh, Knoell, Troy & Kramer, Norristown, Pa.
Plaintffs Expert: Pamela Berg, equine, Glen Ellen, Cal.
Defense Expert: Richard Lewis, equine, San Francisco.
Comment: A Philadelphia jury awarded about $7.8 million, including $5 million in punitive damages, to the wife of a jockey who was killed when his horse bucked and trampled him after being spooked by a chicken at Parx Casino and Racetrack.
After about six hours of deliberation following a week-and-a-half of trial, a jury awarded plaintiff Nura D. Calderon about $7.8 million, including nearly $2.3 million in Wrongful Death Act damages, $500,000 in Survival Act damages and $5 million in punitive damages against Parx owner Greenwood Racing Inc. and its subsidiaries Bensalem Racing Association Inc. and Keystone Turf Club Inc., according to the verdict sheet and information provided by the plaintiff’s attorney, Michael A. Trunk.
According to Trunk, the plaintiff’s demand was $8 million and the defendants’ settlement offer was for $3.5 million, both of which were on the table until the verdict came down.
According to the plaintiff’s pretrial memorandum, plaintiffs-decedent Mario Calderon was killed in May 2010 while exercising his horse on the Parx racetrack.
According to the plaintiff’s memorandum, a chicken on the racetrack caused Calderon’s horse to buck, drop him and subsequently drag and trample him for about 40 seconds.
The plaintiff’s memorandum said that, on May 30, 2010, Calderon had been jogging his horse around the track alongside another rider, Joseph Pagan, when the accident happened.
Pagan testified that he noticed four chickens, one of which was on the track and spread its wings as Calderon passed it, spooking Calderon’s horse, the plaintiff’s memorandum said.
According to Pagan, the horse bucked and Calderon fell to one side with his foot caught in the stirrup, the plaintiff’s memorandum said.
Pagan testified that Calderon was then dragged and trampled until his foot slipped out of his boot, according to the plaintiff’s memorandum.
According to the plaintiff’s memorandum, Calderon suffered multiple fractures to his ribs and pneumothorax, along with “significant trauma” to his face and head.
Calderon was rushed by ambulance to nearby hospital Aria Health, but was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival, the plaintiff’s memorandum said.
“The evidence is undisputed that the Parx defendants were aware of the dangers that chickens present to riders and were aware that chickens were abundant on their premises,” the plaintiff’s memorandum said. “Yet, they allowed scores of chickens to continue to live in and around the barns on their premises for decades, including some that were owned by their own employees.”
According to the plaintiff’s memorandum, another rider was injured at Parx when his horse was spooked by a chicken five months before Calderon’s accident, but the defendants knew about the dangers the chickens posed “going back at least a decade.”
Parx’s director of racing, Salvatore Sinatra, testified that chickens had been present on and around the track since before he started working there in 1999, having been brought to Parx by the horse owners and trainers who are permitted to use the barns along the backstretch on Parx’s property, according to the plaintiff’s memorandum.
Though Sinatra testified that chickens were prohibited on Parx’s premises, they continued to be present and had easy access to the racetrack, the plaintiff’s memorandum said.
Victor Molina, vice president of the Jockeys Association at Parx, testified that he had expressed concern to Parx’s head of security that someone was going to get killed if the chickens continued to wander onto the track but nothing was done, according to the plaintiff’s memorandum.
According to the plaintiff’s memorandum, Sherry Harrington, one of Parx’s safety outriders, said many of the outriders kept chickens as pets.
The plaintiff’s memorandum said that after the other rider was injured when a chicken spooked his horse in January 2010, Parx removed a handful of chickens belonging to an outrider, but made no further effort to remove all the chickens from the property or to discipline the outrider.
Michael P. Ballezzi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, testified that, six months after Calderon’s accident, the PTHA hired someone to remove the chickens from Parx’s premises because it was unsatisfied with Parx’s efforts to do so, according to the plaintiff’s memorandum.
The plaintiff’s equine expert, Pamela Berg, said in her expert report that Parx’s failure to ensure that no chickens were allowed on or near the racetrack “‘was negligent, reckless, wanton, willful and outrageous,’” according to the plaintiff’s memorandum.
In their own pretrial memorandum, the defendants questioned the credibility of Pagan’s testimony, saying he “allegedly witnessed” the accident and noting that other witnesses testified that there were no chickens near the track.
“It should be noted that these allegations were not reported to Parx Racetrack and/or the Bensalem Township Police Department, who conducted an investigation of the accident,” the defense said in the memorandum. “Furthermore, there has been testimony by other witnesses and individuals that were present around the area of the subject accident that there were no chickens present in the area of the subject accident.”
According to Trunk, the defense relied heavily on this theory at trial, but the jury appeared to be swayed by Pagan’s testimony.
“He had no reason to lie,” Trunk said of Pagan. “He wasn’t friends with Mr. Mario Calderon and he didn’t know Mr. Mario Calderon’s wife. That was the definitive proof of what happened here.”
Trunk said he thought the verdict was “reasonable and fair.”
Counsel for the defense, Andrew J. Kramer, could not be reached for comment at press time.
— Zack Needles, of the Law Weekly