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$3.8M Verdict Affirmed Against UPS in Tractor-Trailer Crash Death

he Connecticut Court of Appeals upheld a $3.8 million dollar verdict against UPS, after a driver of its 18-wheeler rear-ended and killed another driver on I-395 in Norwich, Ct.

The UPS tractor-trailer driver Joseph Socha rear-ended George Upton Jr.’s pick-up truck. The impact caused Upton to veer off the road, over the guardrail, through a light post, and down an embankment. Upton was ejected from his pick-up truck and killed.

The administrator of Upton’s estate, Gary Birkhamshaw, filed a wrongful death action, charging negligence and recklessness. Upton’s wife, Julie joined the suit by filing a loss of consortium claim.

The trial jury found for the decedent, awarding the estate a little over $2 million in economic and noneconomic damages. Upton’s wife received a total award of $1.8 million on her loss of consortium claim.

The defendants made several arguments on appeal, including that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing evidence of Upton’s excellent driving history.

Upton’s Driving Habits

The following statements made by witnesses were at issue:

  • The decedent was a safe and cautious driver.
  • The decedent drove like a grandma.
  • He made no sudden accelerations.
  • Upton received million mile safe driving awards.
  • Upton received a gold watch for three years of service without any incidents,
  • The decedent received ‘a clean twelve month history’ during a performance review.

 

The defendants claimed the statements were an improper use of character evidence. Generally, under Rule 404 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, evidence of a person’s character or character traits are not admissible to prove he acted in conformity with the trait.

Although the trial court improperly admitted some character evidence, it properly admitted habit evidence--evidence of a regular practice--the court stated. However as a whole, the admission of the evidence was not harmful enough to affect the jury’s verdict and warrant a new trial.

The appeals court also highlighted that both parties argued the central issue in the case was the credibility of UPS driver Socha and whether he was negligent and reckless in his driving, despite both parties having good driving records.

Expert Witness Testimony

 The defense also claimed the trial court abused its discretion by allowing one expert witness to give “accident reconstruction” testimony because he was unqualified to provide the testimony.

Alternatively, the defendants believed the testimony of a second expert—an accident reconstruction engineer--was better suited. The engineer testified there was scientific and physical evidence that the decedent switched lanes seconds before the crash, cutting Socha off.

The trial court instructed the jury to disregard the expert’s testimony as to the physical and scientific evidence of a lane change.

The first expert witness had extensive experience in various fields related to truck driving and accident reconstruction. An expert witness may provide testimony based on his opinion and experience.

The court concluded the first expert’s testimony was permissible as long as it was based on reliable and accurate sources of information.

The court ruled It was not necessary for the first expert to reconstruct the accident, because he reviewed all of the accident reports, documents, media, visited the accident scene and researched applicable state laws on passing in the right lane.

The appeals court concluded the lower court did not abuse its discretion by eliminating certain evidence and the jury was presented enough evidence to find for the plaintiff.

This case is Birkhamshaw, Administrator(Estate of George M. Upton, Jr.) v. Joseph Socha Et Al. Case No. AC 36058, Connecticut Court of Appeals.

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