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Third Circuit affirms $3.6 million wrongful death award to widow of Pa. truck maintenance worker crushed to death

By Jon Campisi | Dec 10, 2012

A federal appeals court has upheld a $3.6 million wrongful death judgment awarded to

the widow of a vehicle maintenance worker who was killed after the big rig on which he was working fell on top of him and crushed his skull.

The defendant in the case, Trans National Trucking LLC, which owned the truck that ended up falling on top of Jared Conlon, had been sued by Katrina Conlon under a negligence theory.

Following a jury trial at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Katrina Conlon was awarded a total of $3,604,599.83.

The trucking company subsequently appealed the jury decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The defendant contended the District Court erred by denying the defendant’s motion for judgment of law or, in the alternative, their motion for a new trial; not allowing reference to Jared Conlon’s past criminal convictions; not allowing reference to statements in Katrina Conlon’s divorce petition that mentioned her husband’s past criminal convictions; admitting photos of Jared Conlon’s deceased body taken shortly after his death; and refusing to grant remittitur.

On the first point, the trucking company had argued that the jury’s finding of no contributory negligence on the part of Jared Conlon constituted a “clear miscarriage of justice warranting a new trial,” the appeals decision states.

Essentially, the defendant argued that the jury ignored uncontested evidence at trial that established Conlon’s own causal negligence, and that “it can only be assumed that the jury’s verdict was the result of undue sympathy for [Mrs. Conlon] of some other improper motive,” the ruling states.

The panel, however, wrote that the defendant has the burden of proving contributory negligence and to produce evidence and to persuade the jury on this issue.

“Based on the record before us, we hold that it was well within the jury’s province as the finders of fact to conclude that Conlon was not contributorily negligent, and this Court will not disturb its permissible conclusion,” the appeals judges wrote.

The defendant had also stated that the fact that Jared Conlon owed “significant criminal fines” should have been considered by the plaintiff’s expert economist when calculating the loss-of-future-earnings figure, and that evidence of Jared Conlon’s convictions was relevant to determining the appropriate amount of damages to assign for loss of “guidance, tutelage and moral upbringing” under Katrina Conlon’s wrongful death claim, according to the court decision.

On these points, the appellate panel wrote that even if it accepted the trucking company’s argument that evidence of Conlon’s past convictions was relevant to the issue of damages, the District Court that oversaw the trial still had discretion to exclude such evidence if it determined that the evidence was unfairly prejudicial, which it had done in this case.

“We hold that the District Court acted well within its discretion under Rule 403 when it excluded evidence of Mr. Conlon’s past criminal convictions,” the panel wrote.

The record shows that Jared Conlon spent 13 months in a minimum security boot camp following a conviction when he was 20 years old, and that he never again had become in trouble with law enforcement.

“Thereafter, he was never again in trouble with the law, he had children and married after his conviction, and remained employed as a mechanic, supporting himself and his family,” the panel wrote.

As for the appeals issue involving photographs of Jared Conlon’s dead body that were used during trial, the panel wrote that it was well within the District Court’s discretion to admit the photos into evidence.

Katrina Conlon had argued that the photos were relevant because she had the burden of proving that the incident was the cause of her husband’s death, while the defendant asserted the pictures could unfairly prejudice the jury.

“According to the District Court, the probative value of the photographs was not substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice because, although at least one of the photographs ‘revealed a good deal of blood,’ it ‘did not unfairly inflame the jury’s passion or invoke its emotions,’” the ruling states. “Moreover, Appellee argues that one such photograph helped to impeach the testimony of [a defense witness] who stated that Conlon was not bloody immediately following the incident. For these reasons, we hold that it was within the District Court’s discretion to admit the photographs into evidence.”

Lastly the defendant had argued that the District Court erred by refusing to remit the jury’s award of wrongful death damages in the amount of $2,223,289 as excessive and not supported by the evidence presented at trial.

The defendant took issue with the award for loss of guidance, tutelage and moral upbringing, which the company claimed had no basis in fact and shouldn’t have been presented to the jury.

The appeals panel, however, wrote that this issue was considered waived since it was not included in the defendant’s post-trial motions.

The judges also wrote that the $2,223,289 awarded to Conlon’s family under Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death Act does not shock the appeals court’s conscience.

Accordingly, the panel affirmed the judgment.

Background information on the case showed that Jared Conlon was employed by a mobile maintenance company and had been called to examine the brakes of a truck that was placed out of service.

Early on in the repair process, Conlon had asked Cornelius Hart, the driver of the truck, and a co-defendant in the civil case, to put the truck in gear and pump the brakes so that air could be bled out of the brake lines.

Hart, however, subsequently forgot to return the gear to neutral.

Meanwhile, Conlon spent the next several hours working on the vehicle.

Toward the end of the repair process, Conlon asked Hart to start the truck so that he could listen for a leak in the brake system’s tubing, the record shows.

At this point, Conlon crawled under the truck and Hart started the engine.

Tragically, however, as a result of the truck still being in gear, the vehicle immediately lunged forward, knocking itself from the bottle jack that had been holding it up, and a U-bolt on the truck’s undercarriage ended up crushing Conlon’s skull, killing him instantly.

In addition to Conlon’s wife, the deceased is survived by his two young sons, ages 4 and 1.

The Third Circuit ruling was decided by Judges Dolores K. Sloviter, Thomas L. Ambro and Ruggero J. Aldisert.

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