PennDOT successfully convinced an appeals court to give it a second chance in a case in which a jury awarded a cyclist $5.5 million after he hit a bump in the road, crashed, and sustained severe brain damage.
The Commonwealth Court granted the state Department of Transportation’s request for a new trial. The agency had originally asked the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas for a judgment not withstanding the verdict, contending that the judge gave faulty jury instructions.
Although the jury rendered a $5.5 million verdict, the award was molded to $500,000, plus $18,811 in delay damages, because of the statutory damages cap on claims against state agencies.
PennDOT argued that the plaintiffs, David Carletti and his wife Brenda Carletti, failed to provide non-hearsay evidence in their negligence claim, and also failed to show that PennDOT knew about the alleged defect in the road, which would cause PennDOT to be disqualified from sovereign immunity.
Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote in the court’s opinion that even though the trial court denied JNOV because there was sufficient evidence to show that PennDOT was on notice about the road defect, the trial court erred in failing to give limiting instructions to the jury regarding accident reconstructionist Shawn Gyorke’s reference, during testimony, to a deposition from an eyewitness to the accident named David Kauffman.
The trial court instructed the jury: “You’ve heard, in this case the records and reports upon which the expert relied were marked and offered into evidence, and you may consider the facts, the data, or the opinions reasonably relied upon by the expert in evaluating the basis of the expert’s opinion, but it does not establish the truth of the underlying information.”
PennDOT argued this was inadequate.
“We agree with PennDOT that this charge was inadequate because it did not inform the jury that, since Mr. Kauffman did not testify, Gyorke’s opinion as to causation could not be based on Mr. Kauffman’s deposition testimony because that testimony was impermissible hearsay,” Pellegrini said. “By omitting specific references to Mr. Kauffman’s deposition testimony in its instruction, the trial court put the onus upon the jury to determine what precisely was the underlying foundation of Gyorke’s opinion.”
To make matters worse, Pellegrini said, “the trial court instructed counsel that neither was to refer to Mr. Kauffman’s deposition or statements in their closing arguments for any purpose.”
Thomas Sacchetta of Sacchetta & Baldino in Media represents the Carlettis and did respond to a request for comment.
Jane Fisher of the state Attorney General’s Office represents PennDOT and also did not return a call seeking comment.