Jury Awards Widow $4 Million in Wrongful Death Suit, But Attorney Says She Deserves More

Attorney Terrence Garmey describes the forklift accident that killed his client's husband, Thomas Brown, as "horrific" and "brutal." But he has equally strong words for a Maine law that limits the amount of damages that can be awarded to spouses for loss of companionship a law that will subtract $2.6 million from an Aug. 28 jury award in his client's favor.

Claire Brown, widow of Thomas Brown, sued New Bremen, Ohio-based Crown Equipment Corp. after Thomas Brown died in a 2003 workplace accident while he was driving a Crown stand-up lift truck. Claire Brown in the lawsuit argued that Crown Equipment was liable for her husband's death because Crown as early as the 1970s was "aware of the risk of serious injury and death from horizontal intrusion from factory shelving racks in the operation of its stand-up lift trucks."

The jury ruled that Crown Equipment's negligence in failing to warn Thomas Brown's employer of the hazards associated with this lift truck was the primary cause of Brown's death. The jury awarded Claire Brown $4 million, including $3 million for "loss of comfort, society and companionship" from the death of her husband.

However, Claire Brown will only receive $1.4 million of that money because a Maine law caps loss-of-companionship awards at $400,000.

Adjusting for the law, Brown will receive $800,000 in economic damages, $400,000 for Thomas Brown's pain and suffering and $400,000 not $3 million for her loss of companionship.

"$2.6 million of this $4 million is going to be taken away, which is pathetic and barbaric," Garmey told Occupationalhazards.com, adding that Thomas and Claire Brown had "what was by all accounts an extraordinary marriage."

Garmey said he asked U.S. District Judge David Cohen to inform the jury of the Maine limit on loss-of-companionship awards, with the hope that the jury would pencil in a larger award in another category such as Thomas Brown's pain and suffering.

However, Cohen refused to instruct the jury on this matter, according to Garmey.

"This was a really remarkably intelligent jury. They obviously were really impressed with the quality of the relationship between Claire and her husband," Garmey said. "They should have been told [by the judge] that she could keep no more than $400,000" for loss of companionship.

Still, Garmey praised the jury which deliberated nearly 10 hours for their verdict.

"I would say a $4 million verdict in this case would fairly represent some level of significant dissatisfaction with Crown Equipment's conduct on the part of this very intelligent jury," Garmey said.

Lift Truck a "Serial Killer"

At the time of his death, Thomas Brown worked for Prime Tanning Co., a leather tanning company located in Berwick, Maine.

As part of his job, Brown drove a 1989 Crown stand-up lift truck, model 30RCTT-5. On Aug. 1, 2003, Brown was killed while operating the lift truck when he became pinned between a horizontal shelving rack and the console of the truck.

The lawsuit alleged that Crown Equipment was aware of this particular hazard associated with its lift trucks and, prior to the truck's sale to Prime Tanning in 1989, "knew of numerous serious injuries and at least one death from horizontal intrusion accidents involving stand-up lift trucks." Crown Equipment denied the allegations.

Garmey told Occupationalhazards.com that Crown knew of some 227 similar incidents at the time of Brown's death.

Claire Brown's lawsuit also argued that it took Crown Equipment until 1996 to develop a guard that could modify the lift truck to prevent horizontal intrusion hazards and then waited another 3 years to put the word out to dealers and customers that the guard was available.

The lawsuit contended that Crown Equipment failed to notify Prime Tanning of the availability of the guard which "would have prevented Thomas Brown's death or any serious injury."

"This machine, without this guard, is a serial killer," Garmey said. "These machines are designed to … maneuver in tight spaces. You put that kind of design together with a machine that can crush you if you slip under a rack and you have a lethal cocktail."

Jury Ruled Crown Equipment Had a Post-Sale Duty to Warn

The jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine concluded that Crown Equipment's lift truck was not in a "defective and unreasonably dangerous condition" when Crown sold the truck to Prime Tanning.

However, the jury concluded the Crown failed to warn customers of the horizontal intrusion hazard associated with the lift truck and that Crown's negligence in that regard was a legal cause of Brown's death.

The jury also attributed some negligence in Brown's death to Brown himself, reducing what initially was a $4.2 million award by $200,000.

"Certainly Tom made a mistake. He did not go under a rack and kill himself on purpose," Garmey said. Still, "the jury agreed with us that Tom's responsibility, if any, was miniscule compared to Crown's."

Lawyer for Crown Equipment Promises Appeal

James Campbell, the Boston-based attorney who represented Crown Equipment, thanked the jury for their efforts and noted "we agree with them that the forklift in question was not defective at the time of its manufacture."

Regarding the jury's finding that Crown had a post-sale obligation to warn users of the hazards associated with the lift truck, Campbell said Crown plans to appeal the verdict to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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