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Katrina Conlon v. Trans National Trucking LLC

September 19, 2011

KATRINA CONLON,
PLAINTIFF
v.
TRANS NATIONAL TRUCKING LLC, ET AL., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carol Sandra Moore Wells United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM

This case was tried to a jury from June 24, 2011 to June 29, 2011. On the last day of trial, the jury rendered its verdict in favor of Katrina Conlon ("Plaintiff"), individually and as the Administratrix of the Estate of Jared Lee Conlon ("Mr. Conlon"), in the amount of $3,493,569.00. Verdict Sheet (Document No. 65) at 2-3. Thereafter, on July 26, 2011, the Judgment was amended to the increased amount of $3,604,599.86 to allow for delay damages. Amended Civil Judgment (Document No. 72). On July 27, 2011, Defendants (Trans National Trucking, LLC and Cornelius Carlos Hart) filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law, for a new trial or remittitur; Plaintiff responded to the motion on August 8, 2011. For the reasons which follow, Defendants' motion is DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

The parties are well aware of the tragic facts which led to this lawsuit. On August 18, 2008, while Mr. Conlon repaired the air brakes on a truck owned by Defendant Trans National Trucking, LLC, he supported the rear passenger-side wheel of the truck with a bottle jack. Once finished, Mr. Conlon requested that one of the two truck drivers start the vehicle so that he could test the brakes. Defendant Cornelius Carlos Hart started the truck, with it in gear, rather than neutral, causing the truck to lurch forward off the jack; a U-bolt on the undercarriage pierced Mr. Conlon's head above the eye, broke his neck, and fractured the back of his skull, causing death instantly.

Plaintiff's theory of liability was that Mr. Hart was negligent for starting the truck while it was in gear, rather than ensuring that the vehicle was started in neutral and that this negligence was a factual cause of Mr. Conlon's death. Mr. Conlon was survived by Plaintiff, his spouse, and two young sons, hence, Plaintiff advanced both Wrongful Death Act and Survival Act claims under Pennsylvania law. As factual support for her claims, Plaintiff presented her own testimony, as well as that of Brooks Rugemer, an expert in the trucking industry, David L. Hopkins, an actuarial economic expert, Defendant Hart, and Corporal Joseph Korvel, a state police officer who investigated the accident.

Defendants denied any liability, and argued that Mr. Conlon was himself negligent in leaving the truck supported solely by a bottle jack -- rather than jack stands or chock blocks -- and asserted that Mr. Conlon's negligence was a factual cause of his injury. Under Pennsylvania law, Mr. Conlon's causal negligence, if any, would reduce any damages he could be awarded and, if it exceeded 50%, would result in a defense verdict. Defendants declined to present any factual or expert witnesses to support their theory of the case.

After hearing all the testimony, the arguments of counsel and the court's jury instructions, the jury concluded that: Defendant Hart was negligent, his negligence was a factual cause of Mr. Conlon's death, and Mr. Conlon was not negligent; accordingly, Plaintiff was awarded $2,223,289.00 under the Wrongful Death Act and $1,270,280.00 under the Survival Act.

Defendants now seek judgment as a matter of law, a new trial, or remittitur. Defendants' Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law. They argue that the trial court erred by: allowing Mr. Rugemer to testify that Mr. Hart's conduct was a factual cause of Mr. Conlon's death; precluding evidence of Mr. Conlon's criminal history; and admitting several graphic photographs of Mr. Conlon at the accident scene. Defendants' Brief in Support of Post-Trial Motions ("Defs.' Br.") at [7-14], [15-16]. Defendants further maintain that the jury's finding that Mr. Conlon was not negligent was "directly contrary to the evidence." Id. at [14-15]. They contend that: because Plaintiff lacked evidence of the cause of the accident, Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law; the preceding errors warrant a new trial; and remittitur is appropriate because the jury's verdict was excessive. Id. at [16-18]. Plaintiff, in response, requests that this court deny Defendants' motion. For the reasons set forth below the court finds that Defendants are not entitled to relief.*fn1

II. DISCUSSION

A. Brooks Rugemer's Opinion Testimony

Defendants maintain that the court erred by allowing Mr. Rugemer to testify that Mr. Hart's conduct, starting the truck with it in gear, caused Mr. Conlon's death. Defs.' Br. at [7-9]. They assert that Mr. Rugemer's causation testimony was inadmissible because the expert was not qualified to offer said opinion as well as because Mr. Rugemer failed to consider alternative causes of Mr. Conlon's death, namely, decedent's own actions or inactions. Id.

Defendants did not timely object at trial to Mr. Rugemer's qualifications to testify as an expert in the trucking industry, (N.T. 6/27/11 at 31), hence, they have waived that claim. Moreover, since no objection was timely lodged, Mr. Rugemer appropriately expressed his opinion concerning the cause of Mr. Conlon's death. Although Defendants now posit defects in Mr. Rugemer's qualifications, preparation and testimony, see Defendants' Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law ("Defs.' Mot.") at [4-6], all lack merit. Experts, like Mr. Rugemer, are entitled to form opinions based upon documentary evidence reviewed prior to trial. See Fed. R. Ev. 703.

Defendants' assertion that Mr. Rugemer did not consider Mr. Conlon's actions or inactions (including his failure to use jack stands or chock blocks) as potential causes of his own death lacks merit because Mr. Rugemer did consider them. (N.T. 6/27/11 at 56-58, 89, 95-96, 100, 105). Further, despite learning that Mr. Conlon had voluntarily placed his head under the truck while it was started, the jury declined to find that Mr. Conlon was negligent. Hence, even if Mr. Conlon's actions (or inactions) were a ...


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