Pennsylvania superior court upholds trucker’s $750,000 award
August 8, 2019
A Pennsylvania superior court affirmed a lower court’s jury award of $750,000 for a trucker who was rear-ended by another truck.
On Aug. 2, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ruled that Rubin Waite Jr. and Haranin Construction must pay truck driver Seth Nazarak $750,000.
A trial court found Waite and Haranin Construction responsible for a crash involving Nazarak.
In December 2014, Waite was driving a truck owned by Haranin Construction on Route 22 in Cambria County, Pa. Nazarak, driving a truck owned by M&C Trucking Co., was stopped at a red light at the intersection of Route 22 and Cook Street when Waite rear-ended him.
In June 2016, Nazarak filed a lawsuit against the Waite and Haranin, claiming he sustained severe injuries as a result of their negligence. Through the course of the court proceedings, Nazarak agreed to submit to an independent medical exam with Haranin’s medical expert.
In June 2018, a jury found both Waite and Haranin responsible for the crash. The jury calculated Nazarak’s damages to be $750,000.
The defendants ended up appealing the ruling, claiming a new trial is warranted due to the following:
- The court erred in permitting evidence of Nazarak’s workers’ comp lien; denied the jury information regarding Nazarak’s duty to repay that lien.
- Nazarak’s vocational expert testified outside her expertise, and his two medical experts’ evidence should not have been permitted.
- Nazarak’s attorney made improper references during trial that influenced a higher award.
Regarding workers’ comp, defendants claim that submitting the lien as evidence “confused and misled the jury into believing that, since such benefits were paid to Nazarak, his injuries ‘must have been caused by the at-issue accident,’ thus usurping the function of the jury.” They also claim the evidence permitted a double recovery.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that “the jury was not influenced by the introduction of the testimony, as the existence of a workers’ compensation lien does not imply causation in this case, particularly since defendants admitted liability and the issue was damages.”
In terms of double recovery, the insurance company, not Nazarak, has to repay the workers’ comp lien. State law explicitly notes that an insurance company can recover that repayment through a jury award from the insured’s lawsuit. Therefore, the argument was null and void.
Waite and Haranin also took issue with the expert testimony used during trial.
A vocational expert testified that Nazarak could not drive a truck due to the spinal cord stimulator implanted in his back as a result of the crash. Such a device could prevent Nazarak from getting the necessary medical clearance necessary to keep his CDL. However, the expert’s official report didn’t mention of the device.
However, the report said “Mr. Nazarak cannot renew the medical card for his CDL, which has precluded him from driving a commercial vehicle since the accident of Dec. 10, 2014.”
The appellate panel ruled that the discrepancies between the report and testimony were not enough to mislead a jury.
Waite and Haranin also tried to throw out expert opinion of a neuroradiologist. The doctor’s report was read by another doctor on the stand. Defendants called the testifying doctor a “mere conduit” for the neuroradiologist’s opinions. However, a hearsay exception states that “an expert may express an opinion based, in part, upon reports or the opinions of other experts provided such reports or opinions are of a type customarily relied upon by experts in the field.” Consequently, that claim was also denied.
Defendants argued testimony from another doctor should not have been thrown out. More specifically, attorneys for Waite and Haranin tried to prove that Nazarak’s spinal injuries were a preexisting condition that occurred one month prior to the crash as a result of a heavy lifting accident.
The medical expert said it is possible that injuries shown on an MRI taken after the crash could have occurred a month prior. However, no MRI taken immediately after the heavy lifting accident. Both courts ruled that an expert considering a “possibility” is more speculation than anything else. With no basis in fact, that testimony was thrown out and affirmed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
Lastly, Waite and Haranin argued that Nazarak’s attorney made improper references during the trial on two separate occasions.
During closing arguments, Nazarak’s attorney pointed out that the defendants did not call a vocational or economic expert to contradict his own. Defendants claim that the statement essentially suggested to the jury that such an omission is an admission of guilt.
Considering such experts were available to the defendants’ attorneys “if such party does not produce the testimony of this witness, the jury may draw an inference it would have been unfavorable,” according to case law cited in the opinion.
During cross-examination, Waite admitted that Nazarak was not at fault. Although both defendants admitted fault, Waite claimed the crash was the result of faulty brakes. That testimony was thrown out since prior admission of fault nullified any brake issue that may have occurred.
Defendants argue that Nazarak’s attorney deliberately asked Waite if he was at fault, despite both defendants having already stipulated such. This led to testimony of the brakes being stricken from the record. The appellate court denied that argument as well.