A Pennsylvania appeals court last month affirmed a $10.1 million jury verdict after finding that bifurcated compensatory and punitive damage proceedings in the case arising out of a serious trucking accident did not prejudice a Defendant who claimed the approach resulted in an inflated award. A three-judge Superior Court panel rejected arguments from Valvano Construction Inc. that the trial court’s decision to bifurcate proceedings in the case had essentially given a jury two opportunities to award punitive damages against the company.
The case involved a 2010 incident in which failed brakes on one of the company’s trucks caused a serious accident involving two other cars. The appeals court’s decision found that a $9.1 million award handed down by a jury in the compensatory damage phase of the trial in September 2012 was lower than estimates offered by experts for future medical expenses and lost wages. The court’s opinion said:
In light of the fact that the jury’s compensatory damages award was more modest than the estimates of appellees’ experts, we may presume that the jury did not inflate the award with punitive damages after being instructed on the specific nature of what their award should consider. Thus, the record does not support appellant’s contention that it was prejudiced by the decision to bifurcate.
Holly and Robert Kuchwara filed suit against Valvano and driver Theodus Williams in 2010, after they were involved in a rear-end collision when a brake failure sent a Valvano truck careening down a hill at more than 45 miles per hour. Holly Kuchwara sustained fractures to her leg, ankle and back and has had to endure multiple surgeries since the accident. In addition to lax maintenance and inspection records for the Valvano truck, Williams was operating the vehicle without a valid commercial driver’s license.
The Luzerne County trial court agreed to hold one proceeding to calculate compensatory damages. During that phase, the jury was to determine whether Williams and Valvano had acted with reckless indifference. After determining that the defendants had been recklessly indifferent, the trial court instructed the jury on calculating punitive damages in the case. The jury awarded punitive damage in an amount just more than $1 million. Delay damages totaling more than $386,000 were also added to the award.
Valvano claimed that a bifurcated approach that included a reckless indifference finding as part of the compensatory phase was highly prejudicial and created an inflated award that was tainted by punitive damages. Both Valvano and Williams, who launched a separate appeal of the damage award after he was found 20 percent liable for the incident, argued that witnesses had been impermissibly allowed to testify about a question of law regarding whether the Defendants’ conduct constituted reckless indifference.
But the appellate panel found that state rules of evidence allowed expert opinion testimony on the “ultimate issue” at the center of the proceeding. In the instant case, the court ruled that was the question put to the jury: whether the Defendants had acted with reckless indifference. The court’s decision, addressing that issue, said:
Here, the trial court determined that because this case involved the operation of [the truck], opinion testimony was probative in determining the ultimate issue of whether the condition of Valvano’s truck and appellant’s conduct rose to the level of reckless indifference. In furtherance of this goal, the court required the witnesses to develop the factual bases for their opinions. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting lay and expert witnesses … to opine on the ultimate issue.
The Kuchwaras are represented by Joseph Quinn, Jr., of Hourigan Kluger & Quinn PC, a firm based in Scranton, Penn. He has done a very good job for his clients in this case.
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