A Philadelphia jury has awarded $19.1 million to the families of three people who were killed in a five-car pile-up, including a deputy Pennsylvania attorney general.
According to plaintiffs attorneys involved, the jury in the consolidated cases awarded $12.1 million to the family of a husband and wife who were burned to death in the 2014 crash, as well as $7 million to the family of Robert Rosner, who was a longtime prosecutor who worked as a Lehigh County assistant district attorney and special assistant U.S. attorney before handling cases at the Attorney General’s Office.
The verdict was announced June 25 after five days of trial before Judge James Crumlish.
The crash, according to court papers, happened May 12, 2014, on a stretch of I-78 running through Berks County that was undergoing a bridge rehabilitation project. The papers said there was about two and a half miles of backed-up traffic on the road when the collision happened.
According to court papers, the primary defendant, which had contracted with PennDOT to oversee the project, allegedly failed to put up adequate warnings, which then caused a tractor-trailer to hit the vehicle with Rosner. That car then struck the Jeep Ned and Theresa Dearden were in, which then caused an explosion. Court papers said Rosner suffered several fractures before dying as a result of the fire, and the Deardens burned to death while trapped in their vehicle.
According to Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky’s David Kwass, who represented the Deardens, the decision of the contractor, Bill Anskis Company Inc., not to take responsibility for its role in the crash was likely a motivating factor for the jury to award 90% liability against the company.
We pointed out that when a PennDOT contractor violates a term of its contract—as we contend Bill Anskis did—then the entire commonwealth of Pennsylvania is shortchanged. And when that compromise is a safety promise, then the entire commonwealth of Pennsylvania has been endangered and placed at risk.
The other 10% liability was against the driver of the tractor-trailer, who had settled out before trial.
John Dodig of Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter Tanner Weinstock Dodig, who represented Rosner, said that his cross examination of the company’s foreman was also effective in getting him to admit that the company violated their contract.
“He actually admitted, in the last question, that they did not do everything within their control to protect motorists,” Dodig said.
According to the plaintiffs’ pretrial memos, Bill Anskis Company had initially used a “long term” traffic control method to help warn drivers of potential slowdowns, since the construction required traffic to narrow from one to two lanes. However, in the days before the accident, the company switched to a “short term” method, which meant taking down some of the initial signage drivers would have seen.
The plaintiffs’ pretrial memos also said that, on the day of the accident, traffic was backed up for more than two miles, and so there was no signage before the beginning of the traffic. The plaintiffs argued that the contractor never should have removed the additional signage, and should have at least requested assistance from the Pennsylvania State Police to help assist with the traffic control.
To bolster their liability arguments, the plaintiffs cited testimony from drivers who said they had been initially unsure of why there had been traffic that day, and that they would have slowed down had there been a police car with lights flashing.
Kwass added that the defendant also tried to blame the truck driver, saying that all other drivers that day had not had any difficulty seeing the slowdowns and so additional signage would not have helped a driver who was allegedly so distracted. Kwass said the plaintiffs’ trial team, which also included David Langsam of Saltz Mongeluzzi and Feldman Shepherd’s Jason Daria, were able to turn that argument against the company.
“Basically, the truck driver had 24 seconds to slow down, and the Bill Anskis Company had five days to think through a better plan,” he said.
Andrew R. Benedict of Bardsley, Benedict + Cholden was the lead trial attorney representing Bill Anskis Company. Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin’s John Hare also represented the company. Neither returned a call Monday seeking comment.