A federal judge said a jury should decide whether a nationwide travel center and auto repair shop should be hit with punitive damages for failing to properly fix a tractor-trailer before allowing it back on the road where the brakes later caught fire.
U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann of the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled in Wilson v. TA Operating to deny the defendants’ motion to dismiss punitive damages claims from the case, finding witness testimony raised serious questions of whether a mechanic had been properly trained, or whether adequate safety measures had been put in place.
“The central question here really is whether a reasonable jury, after considering all of the facts and circumstances, could determine that the defendants acted recklessly?” Brann said. “I believe that such a jury could decide as much, and therefore, partial summary judgment as to the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim must be denied.”
The case stems from a fatal incident where a tractor-trailer’s front brakes caught fire. Truck driver Jerry Wilson, according to Brann’s opinion, extinguished the flames and then drove to the nearest service center, which was owned by TA Operating LLC, also known as a TravelCenters of America, in Clinton County.
Treston Wesley Harris, a defendant in the case, serviced the truck. Brann said Harris knew about the recent fire, and noted that Wilson also bought a new fire extinguisher from the service center. However, about 15 minutes after Wilson got back on the road after Harris purportedly fixed the brakes, the brakes once again caught fire.
According to Brann, Wilson pulled his truck onto the side of the road, but was unable to knock down the flames with his new fire extinguisher. Wilson then suffered a heart attack, and died on the side of the road, Brann said.
Brann said that the case involved “thorny causal issues,” but, looking for guidance from Pennsylvania law, he said it was clear punitive damages should remain in the case.
Brann’s 33-page opinion contained numerous pages of testimony from Harris, as well as the supervising mechanic in charge of Harris at the time of the repair. The excerpts indicated that Harris had not received prescribed brake training before, or even several months after Wilson’s brakes caught fire, and that the level of supervision by the more qualified mechanic was questionable and highly contested.
According to Brann, the testimony suggested not only that Harris may have been reckless and thus subject to possible punitive damages, but also that a jury should determine whether TA Operating should be subject to punitive damages based on vicarious liability.
Brann also said that the deterrent nature of punitive damages further made the possibility of punitive damages appropriate for the case.
“The testimony cited above evidences that significant questions of fact exists as to whether the defendants’ action or inaction constituted reckless indifference for the wellbeing of the plaintiff’s decedent,” Brann said. “Where such recklessness is present, the imposition of punitive damages is appropriate to deter similar conduct in the future as to these defendants and others similar situated.”
Adam Wilf of Lundy Law represented Wilson, and Jeffrey Oster of Rawle & Henderson represented TA Operating. Both attorneys did not return a call for comment.
Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.