Lawyers for a truck driver who suffered a fractured left arm and nerve damage announced that they reached a $2 million settlement with the contractors and subcontractors who built a supermarket in Upper Merion Township, Montgomery County.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Robert J.Mongeluzzi of the Philadelphia firm Daniels Saltz Mongeluzzi & Barrett, said that jurisdiction issues and the economics of the driver’s home state of West Virginia were key factors in achieving the resolution.
The lawsuit in Wilson v. AHJ, Inc. was resolved less than three years after the 1993 incident in which a load of steel was dropped by ironworkers on Tommy Wilson, who was walking toward the front of his truck as the flatbed was being unloaded.
One of the key questions in the case was the forum and venue for the lawsuit, Mongeluzzi said.
The plaintiff originally filed the suit in Philadelphia common pleas court, expecting it to be transferred to Montgomery County state court. But a defendant sought removal to federal court.
The removal had an effect on the timing and perhaps the amount of the settlement, he said.
“We sued originally in Philadelphia County common pleas court, and one of the out-of-state defendants, John W. Hancock Jr. [Inc.]. had it removed to federal court,” Mongeluzzi said, adding that there was a chance that other defendants might object to the removal. “I had felt that the case would probably be moved to Montgomery County.”
From the plaintiffs’ perspective, being federal court may be· a more favorable environment than a suburban court system,
Mongeluzzi indicated although the original filing indicated a preference for Philadelphia common pleas court.
“This is a significant result for a federal court case, Mongeluzzi said.
“Our demand had originally been $3-4 million. And [U.S. Magistrate] Judge [Diane M.] Welsh spent a full day with us and did an excellent job.”
Mongeluzzi described a mediation procedure that, once liability was established, centered on the issue of lost wages to Wilson, who lost the use of his left arm with the severe nerve damage to his back and shoulder.
“The case was more ripe for settlement when Judge Welsh got it,” Mongeluzzi said. “And the defendants were willing to talk and truly focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the case. But the ultimate reason that the case was resolved was that Tommy Wilson lost the use of his arm and could not find work” in his home state of West Virginia.
On damages, divisions opened over the availability of jobs and whether Wilson should be rained for sedentary work such as computer operations and repair. The plaintiff engaged an expert in vocational rehabilitation who is based in Charleston, W.Va, who could testify as to the economic climate of the state. “In putting together the damages, our theory was that he had a seventh-grade education and lived in an area of high unemployment,” Mongeluzzi said. “And we could show that high-tech jobs in West Virginia were competed for by college graduates.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyer added that, in effect, the defendants were asking Wilson to move to find work, a position he said would not have been favorably received by a jury.
“It was a pretty novel approach to talk about unemployment in West Virginia” in the damage aspect of the case, Mongeluzzi said. “There are practical reasons why a person can or cannot get a job.”
‘Nilson’s medical bills were in the neighborhood of $54,000, Mongeluzzi said, and lost wages were estimated between $969,000 and $1.7 million.
Mongeluzzi said he sought to achieve a global settlement with all of the defendants, and allow them to work out percentages of liability. AHJ Inc., which supervised the ironworkers, had to pick up most of the loss, agreeing to pay $1 .2 million. Northwood Construction Inc, the general contractor, settled for $300,000, as did Northwest Steel Erectors Inc., a third-party defendant and the employer of a crane operator who signaled that the load of steel be lifted. John ‘W’. Hancock Jr. Inc, the steelmaker from West Virginia, must contribute $150,000, and Leonard Kunkin and Associates Inc, the subcontractor in charge of steel fabrication and erection.
In February 1993, Wilson drove his tractor-trailer, loaded with ·structural steel, from the Hancock steel plant to the supermarket construction site ‘in Upper Merion Township. By the time he got to the site, the load was covered with snow.
According to a case summary prepared by Mongeluzzi, Wilson unfastened the chains that secured the steel and then walked toward the front of his truck the ironworkers had already begun to hoist a load of steel joists, not seeing that other parts of the load were in position to be knocked off the truck.
The summary said that the load was hoisted and knocked off a 1 1/2-ton bundle of iron, pinning Wilson.
According to Mongeluzzi, the act was negligent because the ironworking crew was short-staffed, the lift was made without determining whether the load of joists was entangled with any other iron and steel on the flatbed, snow hadn’t been cleared from the load and no one made sure that the area around the truck was clear when the joists were lifted.
Lawyers for the lead defendant in the case were unavailable for comment on Friday.