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Appellate Court Affirms Liability Verdict and Modifies Damages Awarded by Jury in Truck-Pedestrian Fatality Case

Posted in Wrongful Death

On May 10, 2007, Ivan Hernandez Morales, then 21 years old, was killed in a work-related accident when a private garbage truck lurched backward and he was pinned and crushed against a dumpster in a driveway off 37th Street in Astoria. Mr. Morales was employed  as a helper on the truck owned by his employer Crown Container Co. and operated by a coworker.

In the ensuing lawsuit to recover damages for pain and suffering and wrongful death, plaintiff asserted claims against Crown, related companies and its driver.  In the midst of trial, the Crown defendants settled with plaintiff for the sum of $1,550,000 plus the waiver of the workers compensation lien of about $150,000. The only defendant remaining at trial was Advanced Fleet Maintenance, Inc. which serviced the truck’s transmission six months before the accident (and had been brought into the case by Crown as a third-party defendant).

The Kings County jury found that Advanced was 49.5% liable for the accident after trial evidence demonstrated that after servicing and inspecting the truck, it allowed the truck to leave its facility without a required functioning neutral interlock system. Crown was found to be 49.5 % at fault and the driver 1% at fault.

The jury awarded pre-death pain and suffering damages in the sum of $3,000,000 ($1,000,000 for pre-impact terror and $2,000,000 for conscious pain and suffering).

In Vargas v. Crown Container Co., Inc. (2d Dept. 2017), the liability verdict was affirmed but the pain and suffering damages award was reduced to $1,000,000 ($250,000 for pre-impact terror and $750,000 for conscious pain and suffering).

As indicated in the court’s decision, the medical examiner (who performed the autopsy) testified as an expert for the plaintiff that Mr. Morales sustained multiple rib fractures and internal injuries that resulted in his death one or two minutes after impact. Here are additional facts that were adduced regarding the claims for pre-impact terror and conscious pain and suffering:

  • the impact caused blunt trauma to the head and massive crush injuries of the torso including a ruptured diaphragm, fractured sternum, eight rib fractures, an arm fracture and lacerations of the abdominal wall, liver (almost torn in half) and spleen
  • the truck driver held Mr. Morales in his arms at the scene and said: “His eyes were watching me. He was moving his arms.”
  • EMS arrived 10 minutes after impact at which point Mr. Morales was not breathing and had no pulse. He was pronounced dead upon his arrival at a hospital.
  • the defense expert emergency medicine physician opined that the decedent had no time to appreciate that the truck was approaching him and therefore did not suffer any pre-impact terror. Furthermore, the expert opined that the impact and injuries caused massive internal bleeding, the result of which would have been an immediate loss of consciousnesses (since blood flow to the brain is required for consciousness)

Mr. Morales was survived by his wife and their two year old son and the jury awarded loss of parental guidance damages in the sum of $3,000,000 ($2,000,000 past – seven years, $1,000,000 future – 16 years). The appellate court reduced the loss of parental guidance damage award to $1,000,000 ($650,000 past, $350,000 future).

The jury also awarded and the appellate court affirmed loss of earnings damages in the sum of  $1,208,000 ($168,000 past – seven years, $1,040,000 future – 16 years).

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