A former Conrail employee catastrophically injured when a 40-pound steel plate fell on his face received a $7 million verdict from a Philadelphia Common Please jury yesterday.
Jeffrey Darlin, 42, of Swarthmore was found to be 7 percent negligent by the jury, bringing his actual award in the three-day trial to $6,510,000. Conrail is responsible for the remaining 93 percent.
An executive at Conrail, Darlin was injured June 19, 1996, when he was required to assist in the removal of several automobiles from freight cars in a North Jersey terminal. According to his attorney, solo practitioner John Savoth of Philadelphia, his client received insufficient training to perform such a dangerous task.
Savoth said the automobiles were unloaded through train cars linked together by two 40-pound “bridge plates” until they reached the last train car and were driven down a ramp. There were several levels of cars on the train.
Darlin followed the instructions of one of many stevedores, who directed him to remove one of the bridge plates from the upper deck of the train – unaware that a car was parked directly above. The plate came flying down, crushing his jaw and chin.
Three surgeries later, Darlin had his jaw cut, removed and reconstructed, and underwent 11 root canals. He has massive scars incurred by the surgical procedures and now has a lopsided chin.
Savoth sought damages for pain and suffering, disfigurement, loss of life’s pleasures, and embarrassment and humiliation. The plaintiff did not seek damages for lost wages or medical expenses.
When testimony began in the case Monday, Savoth called four of Darlin’s treating doctors, the plaintiff himself, his wife, two Conrail terminal managers, and a stevedore. Savoth said the managers and stevedore delivered key evidence about Darlin’s lack of training.
The managers said stevedores have at least 30 days of training to perform the task, while office personnel like Darlin merely watched a video and received 20 minutes of verbal instruction while on-site, Savoth said.
“I think the jury responded to the plaintiff himself,” Savoth said. “He was exceptionally credible, and I think they could see he was working really hard to overcome his injuries.”
Conrail’s attorney, Walter McDonough of Swartz Campbell & Detweiler, said he will be appealing the verdict. He said Darlin’s appearance was altered significantly by a surgery 10 days prior to trial and that most likely garnered the jury’s sympathy.
“He still had a lot of swelling and discomfort, he had no dentures…so I really think the jury saw him at his worst,” McDonough said. “Even though the doctors agreed that implants would improve his appearance and function, it was hard to overcome the visceral reaction to seeing what he looked like.”
The defense called its own medical expert as well as a Conrail employee, arguing that Darlin should assume a level of responsibility for the accident because it was clear that the cars were still parked above the plates.
William Corey, a solo practitioner from Ridley Park, assisted Savoth with the case tried in front of Judge Flora Wolf.