Pennsylvania court affirms $10 million judgment for crash caused by dump truck with poorly maintained brakes

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by John Chapman

In May 2010, Theodus Williams was driving a 1979 Mack tri-axle dump truck for Valvano Construction near Scranton, Pennsylvania. The dump truck’s brakes failed and the truck barreled down a hill in excess of forty-five miles per hour. The truck slammed into the rear of a car driven by Doreen Klaproth-Mazur, pushing that vehicle into the rear of Holly Ann Kuchwara’s car. The force caused Kuchwara’s car to be pushed into another vehicle in front of her and then into a utility pole.

Mrs. Kuchwara was seriously injured. She sustained lacerations to her face and fractures to her leg, ankle, and back. As a result of the accident, she has undergone multiple surgeries and has been left with pain, permanent scars, an altered gait, and a significant limp.

Kuchwara and her husband, Robert, filed suit against both the driver, Williams, and Valvano Construction. At trial, there was evidence that Valvano had been operating the truck without the certifications required by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. There was evidence that the truck’s faulty brakes had not been properly inspected and only three out of eight brakes were functioning, it was not operating with a tag axle as required, the steering wheel had at least seven and a half inches of play, and its speedometer and many of the safety alarms were inoperable, among other maintenance issues. There was also evidence that Valvano did not have a maintenance or safety program, and that it failed to perform pre- or post-trip inspections of its vehicles to ensure they were safe.

The jury found Valvano Construction and Williams responsible for the accident. The jury awarded Holly Kuchwara $7,635,000 in compensatory damages for medical bills, emotional pain and past and future lost earnings and Robert $1,465,000 for loss of his wife’s companionship and services. After finding that both defendants had acted with “reckless indifference,” the jury also awarded the couple $1 million in punitive damages against Valvano Construction, and $25,000 in punitive damages against Williams.

The defendants appealed the verdict. In separate opinions, a panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania has now affirmed the judgments against Williams and Valvano Construction in favor of the Kuchwaras. The court of appeals found that the trial court had committed no reversible error with regard to evidentiary and procedural issues during the trial. Furthermore the court of appeals found the jury’s verdict to be sufficiently supported by the evidence.

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