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$3.5M Verdict for Trucker Death in Faulty Transmission Explosion

flaming truck lying on the highway
Heat from leaking exhaust fumes caused the truck's transmission fluid to explode.

A California jury delivered a $3.5 million verdict against a trucking company for the death of a driver killed in an explosion caused by an improperly maintained transmission.

Armajit Khunkhun, 43, was driving the malfunctioning truck owned by his friend, defendant Aftar Gil, who operated GMG trucking of Fresno with his wife Jaswinder Gil.

Within 30 minutes of Khunkhun driving in the defendant’s truck on March 23, 2010, a severe transmission leak ignited by the heat emitted the exhaust caused the explosion and cabin fire that killed Khunkhun, according to Bill Robins, the lead attorney for Khunkhun.

Heard a "ticking noise"

In the days prior to Khunkhun’s death, Gil drove the defective truck and heard a “ticking noise.”  He added transmission fluid at a truck stop in Oklahoma City, but the noise continued. A dispatcher told Gil to park his truck and have Khunkhun help him deliver the load. Afterwards, Gil reported he no longer heard the noise while driving the truck without a load attached.

While making his deliveries, Khunkhun became ill. Gil offered to exchange trucks with him and deliver Khunkhun’s last load so that Khunkhun could return home sooner. Gil met Khunkhun at a Texas rest area where Khunkhun switched trucks.  After driving into New Mexico, Khunkhun pulled over on a stretch of highway where he died in the truck explosion.

The New Mexico fire department found a lighter and cooking utensils in the cabin and concluded that the fire started inside of the truck. Khunkhun’s family requested further investigation because it was not typical for Khunkhun to cook recklessly within the truck cabin, according to Robins.

Toxic fumes

Dallas Lane, an independent fire investigator, examined the fire patterns and determined the fire had started under the truck. He found that the hottest area appeared in the location of the transmission. The truck had a severe transmission leak, with only half an inch of transmission fluid present.

The plaintiff attorneys also presented a diesel mechanic expert, Tom Trust, who evaluated the transmission and determined that it was “severely damaged, and not properly maintained and running with leaking transmission fluid,” according to Robins.  He also discovered that there was a hole in the exhaust, concluding that the fumes ignited the transmission fluid.

Replicating the travel of the fumes on an exemplar truck indicated that the fumes likely traveled in the direction of the cab. Attorney Robins reported that Khunkhun had been exposed to toxic gases which disoriented him. Khunkhun had a 51% level of carbon monoxide in his blood stream at the time of his death.

The jury concluded on October 3, 2014 that as Khunkhun had called his wife while in Oklahoma and mentioned to her that Gil had problems with his truck, he should have recognized that it was unsafe to drive the truck.The jury awarded $3.5 million in damages, after a reduction in the award by 15% for Khunkhun’s contributory negligence.

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