A Florida jury ruled on Aug. 27 that two trucking companies were complicit in the 2017 death of an 18-year-old honor student, awarding the family of the late Connor Dzion a total of $1 billion in damages.
And the jury’s message, according to Dzion family defense attorney Curry Pajcic, was this: “Companies that don’t follow the law will pay the price.”
Not everyone in the trucking industry agrees with the price set in this particular case, however.
“Such a verdict is so detached from reality that one can only conclude that it’s more about the message from the most lucrative niche of the legal profession that the sky is the limit when pursuing the trucking industry,” said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Unpredictable and out-of-line awards will cause insurers to stop writing policies for truckers.”
In the nine-year period between 2010 and 2018, the most recent statistics available, jury verdict awards against trucking companies grew at a rate of 51.7% per year. Using data collected from a trucking-litigation database, the Americana Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) studied detailed information about 600 cases between 2006 and 2019. In the first five years of the study, 2006-2010, there were 26 cases in which jury awards totaled over $1 million. In the most recent five years (2015-2019), there were 300 such awards.
Pajcic described the Dzion family’s experience as a “nightmare” that began about 9 p.m. on Labor Day 2017, while Dzion was stopped on Interstate 95 near Jacksonville, Florida. An 18-wheeler driven by Russell Rogatenko of AJD Business Services Inc. had crashed into another vehicle and caught fire, halting traffic.
While Connor Dzion sat in his car waiting for the wreck to be cleared, a rig driven by Kahkashan Carrier Inc.’s Yadwinder Sangha of Canada slammed into a parked line of cars behind the initial wreck, pancaking Dzion’s sedan and causing his head to be crushed between Sangha’s grill and the car in front of him.
Pajcic said Sangha was traveling with the cruise control at 70 mph, and the truck’s on-board data recorder showed he did not attempt to brake until one second before the fatal crash. Pajcic said Sangha was looking at his phone instead of the road when he “steamrolled” into Dzion’s car.
Sangha also reportedly could not read English, so the flashing electronic signs that were put up miles before the standstill, warning drivers to be prepared to stop, were not understood.
Pajcic said the drivers of both of the rigs involved in the crash, and their companies, didn’t “play by the rules” and were dangerous. He also asserted that the companies the drivers worked for were cutting corners in order to make more profit.
Pajcic told The Trucker that Rogatenko didn’t have a valid CDL at the time of the crash, and alleged that he had a habit of watching porn on his cell phone while operating his rig.
“Both of these guys were really bad,” he said, adding that both Sangha and Rogatenko had previous hours-of-service violations.
Additionally, Pajcic said Rogatenko had been involved in several other crashes on I-95 before the one that caused the traffic jam and ultimately resulted in Dzion’s death.
The Nassau County Circuit Court ruled that Sangha’s negligence caused Dzion’s death, and the jury set a monetary amount they felt the young man’s family was entitled to.
The jury also found that AJD owed Connor’s mother, Melissa Dzion, $16 million for negligent infliction of emotional destress.
The jury further ruled that Melissa Dzion was owed $49 million in wrongful death damages from both companies, and that Connor’s father, David Dzion, was due $37 million in wrongful death damages from the two carriers.
The jury ruled that Kahkashan Carrier is liable for 90% of the wrongful death damages, leaving 10 percent against AJD.
The biggest chunk of money awarded in the case, however, came in the form of punitive damages against AJD. The jury ruled that the company must pay $900 million for its role in Connor’s death.
Attempts to reach attorneys for either carrier or the defendants were unsuccessful. A man, who refused to identify himself, answered a phone number listed for AJD, and said only that the company “is no longer in business.”
A message left for Sean McDonough, the attorney listed in court documents as the legal representative for Kahkashan Carrier, was not returned. AJD was not represented in court, according to court documents.
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, both Kahkashan and AJD are listed as inactive and out of service.
Pajcic said that, while the family is unlikely to ever see a substantial amount of money from the case, “we will work as hard as we can to get what we can. I may never see any money from it, but we are going to keep trying.”
In a court filing after the verdict, attorneys for AJD wrote that the punitive damage award is “clearly excessive because it would bankrupt some of the defendants” and that the most the “plaintiff should be entitled to (is) a nominal award.”
Court documents show that AJD’s insurance carrier, Falls Lake National Insurance Co., “tendered its policy limits of $1 million to Melissa Dzion in exchange for a release of the wrongful death claim against AJD and its driver.”
AJD’s defense team has also filed a motion for a new trial.
In their motion for a new trial, Kahkashan’s attorneys wrote that “a verdict that awards almost a billion dollars in damages against two defendant trucking companies by itself reflects a verdict that should shock to conscience of the Court and demonstrates that the jury was unduly influenced by passion or prejudice or other factors besides the evidence and law presented to them.”
Pajcic said that, above all, the Dzion family “just wants to make sure no one ever has to go through anything like this again.”
“Most trucking companies are good,” he said. “They hire safe drivers; they play by the rules that protect us all. We need truckers because they bring us the things we need and use. There is a reason you never hear about these kinds of cases against major companies like JB Hunt or CR England. They play by the rules, spend the money to do it right. These regulations that they follow protect us all.”