A Philadelphia jury yesterday awarded more than $75 million to a former highway construction worker who was left quadriplegic after he was struck by a drunken driver and thrown more than 100 feet.
In the verdict for Tuski v. Ivyland Cafe, both the drunken driver and the bar where he worked and had served himself drinks that morning were found liable for more than $50 million in compensatory damages. Both defendants were also hit with punitive damage awards. The jury said the owners of the Ivyland Cafe should pay $5 million in punitive damages and that driver Michael Petaccio should pay $20 million in punitives.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Mongeluzzi of Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky said he believes the award to plaintiff Joseph Tuski may be the second-largest verdict ever in Philadelphia in a non-death personal injury case. (The largest such verdict was won by attorney Andrew Stern of The Beasley Firm in November 2000 in Vlasny v. Cavarocchi in which a jury awarded $100 million to a 5-year-old girl in a medical malpractice suit against two hospitals and four doctors it held responsible for a series of injuries that left her brain-damaged and missing an arm.)
The verdict came after a six-day trial before Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge John Milton Younge. The jury deliberated for two hours before announcing its verdict. In the verdict, the jury awarded Tuski more than $1.6 million for his past medical expenses, $18 million for future medical expenses, and $2 million for lost earnings. The verdict also included four awards of $7.25 million each—or $29 million—for pain and suffering, loss of life’s pleasures, embarrassment and disfigurement.
According to court papers, on Jan. 17, 2001, Tuski was working as a flagman for Liberty Construction at a road-paving project in Warminster. One lane of the road was closed to traffic, and Tuski and another flagman were directing traffic. At the time of the accident, Tuski had several cars stopped in order to allow the oncoming traffic to proceed.
Petaccio passed the stopped cars on the shoulder and struck Tuski at more than 40 miles per hour, throwing him more than 108 feet and causing injuries that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Mongeluzzi said in court papers.
After the accident, according to court papers, Petaccio fled the scene and drove to his nearby home where he smashed into pillars near his driveway.
Mongeluzzi said Petaccio then persuaded his girlfriend to take him to his mother’s house in Philadelphia. When they discovered that his mother was not at home, they went to the home of Petaccio’s sister, who immediately called the police and informed them that her brother “was drunk and had been in an accident.” Police arrested Petaccio several hours after the accident and noted that he appeared intoxicated, Mongeluzzi said in court papers. But Petaccio at first denied drinking any alcohol in the six hours before his arrest and refused to submit to a blood test, Mongeluzzi said. After police obtained a search warrant, Petaccio’s blood was tested about 8 p.m. It showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.17 percent.
At trial, Mongeluzzi and his co-counsel, Michael J. Hopkins, set out to prove that Petaccio was excessively drunk at the time of the accident. Charles Winek, a toxicologist who testified for the plaintiff, estimated that Petaccio’s blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident was at least 0.24 percent and possibly as high as 0.27 percent.
Petaccio pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge in September 2001, but he testified at the civil trial that his guilty plea was motivated by a desire to avoid jail time and that he was not drunk at the time of the accident. He said he had consumed several drinks after the accident, but Mongeluzzi said he strongly challenged Petaccio’s claim on cross-examination.
Petaccio admitted that prior to the accident he had consumed one-and-a-half bottles of beer at the Ivyland Cafe where he worked as a manager, Mongeluzzi said, and that he knew his drinking violated the bar’s policy against employee’s consumption of alcoholic beverages on the premises. But Mongeluzzi insisted that Petaccio must have drunk much more. He told the jury that Petaccio’s car was found later with a broken windshield and with empty beer containers in the front seat.
Petaccio’s girlfriend testified in her deposition that Petaccio was a daily drinker and often drank to excess. She also said that she tried to warn his family before the accident. “I called his whole family at Christmas time before the accident and I told them that I was leaving, that he was an alcoholic and that somebody needed to do something because there was going to be something bad that was going to happen,” Kristine Camm testified.
If you turn drunks loose on our highways, Pennsylvania juries will hold you responsible.
Mongeluzzi said he hopes the punitive damage verdict sends a strong message to bar owners.
The Ivyland Cafe had a $1 million insurance policy, but Mongeluzzi said the insurer never offered it to settle the case. As a result, Mongeluzzi said the collection of the verdict may entail a bad faith lawsuit against the bar’s insurer. Petaccio tendered his personal automobile policy of $100,000, but he also owns several homes that could be used to satisfy the verdict, Mongeluzzi said.