$5.5 Mil. Awarded in Lawrence County Case Over Fatal Crash

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A $5.5 million verdict has been awarded in a wrongful-death case to the parents of a man who died shortly after his vehicle was struck by a tractor-trailer.

The verdict in McConnell v. Guru Global Logistics was handed up by a Lawrence County jury late last month to plaintiffs Vickie and Mark A. McConnell, the parents of then-22-year-old Mark A. McConnell II, who was struck in his car by a tractor-trailer driven by defendant Andrew V. Johnson.

This is the largest Lawrence County verdict to have been reported by The Legal over the past 20 years, according to information compiled in The Legal's annual magazine, PaLaw. According to PaLaw, Lombardo v. Gardner, a $2.79 million medical malpractice verdict in 2006, was formerly the top Lawrence County verdict.

The jury found Johnson 30 percent negligent and the additional defendant, Johnson's alleged joint-employer, Guru Global Logistics LLC, 70 percent negligent. The jury apportioned $2.1 million to loss of future earning capacity; a total of $3 million to Mark McConnell II's parents for loss of services, society and comfort; and $365,000 for conscious pain and suffering.

Johnson's attorney, Robert Grimm of Swartz Campbell in Pittsburgh, said that a separate case against Johnson's other joint-employer, Howard Truckline—relating to the same accident—settled for a confidential amount on the first day of trial. Grimm confirmed that Howard Truckline had a $1 million insurance policy.

The attorney for the McConnell family, Jeffrey B. Killino of the Philadelphia-based Killino Firm, said that there was no high-low agreement in the Guru case, and that the settlement from the Howard Truckline case does not offset any portion of the award against Guru.

Killino said the case served as an example that large verdicts are still attainable in Pennsylvania's rural counties, despite popular belief.

"This is significant because you have [a] $5.5 million [verdict] in the counties," Killino said. "That shows you can get substantial verdicts out in the counties and not just Allegheny or Philadelphia."

Post-trial motions are pending in the case, Killino said.

According to the plaintiffs' pretrial memorandum, on Aug. 18, 2008, Johnson's truck was idling on an on-ramp leading into an intersection while he waited inside for instructions from one of his joint-employers as to where he would be traveling.

At the time Johnson began moving toward the intersection, court papers said, Mark McConnell II was driving on a perpendicular route in his car.

The plaintiffs alleged that Johnson, in crossing the intersection, failed to heed a stop sign and flashing red lights as he crashed into McConnell's vehicle. The force of the impact forced McConnell's car across the intersection where the front driver's side of the vehicle collided with two utility poles.

Following the crash, court papers said, McConnell was trapped in his car. When emergency medical responders arrived on the scene, McConnell was pulled from the wreckage, intubated, and life-flighted to a hospital in Youngstown, Ohio.

Shortly before the helicopter landed at the hospital, McConnell went into cardiac arrest due to the trauma of the accident. According to court papers, the hospital's trauma team could not resuscitate McConnell and he was pronounced dead.

Johnson's court papers claimed that Johnson had come to a stop at the intersection and had looked both ways before crossing. Johnson's papers also alleged that McConnell did not heed the flashing yellow lights in his lane of traffic, and was speeding when the two vehicles collided.

McConnell's impact with the tractor-trailer caused it to rotate clockwise, defense papers maintained, and McConnell's vehicle effectively bounced off of Johnson's truck into the utility poles.

In Guru's court papers, Guru denied that it was a joint-employer of Johnson with Howard Truckline, and thus not vicariously liable.

Guru's papers cited the state Supreme Court's opinion in Sefton v. Valley Dairy,which said that the "presence of a defendant's name on a commercial vehicle raises a rebuttable presumption that the vehicle is owned by [the] defendant and that the driver of the vehicle is a servant of [the] defendant acting within the scope of his employment."

Johnson testified that the tractor-trailer was owned by and registered to Howard Truckline, Guru's papers said.

The truck also carried the banner of Howard Truckline and as such, Guru's papers concluded, there was a presumption that Johnson was an employee of Howard Truckline.

Johnson had not worked for Guru since a week before the time of the accident when Johnson was let go by the company, Guru's papers said.

Grimm declined to comment on the Johnson-Guru case. Paul S. Guarnieri of Malone Middleman in Pittsburgh represented Guru and did not return a call seeking comment.

P.J. D'Annunzio can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or pdannunzio@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @PJDAnnunzioTLI. •

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