The Largest Verdict for an Injured Worker in 2019 Was Caused by a Single Loose Jam Nut
“The entire case hinged on whether a jury would believe a single loose jam nut caused the parking brake to fail on a 33,000 pound tractor and, if so, whether that loose nut could be traced back to the work the defendant performed on the brake nine months earlier,” Daniel Hessel said. “The turning point came when the defendant’s liability expert admitted that both of these scenarios were 51% likely – effectively admitting plaintiff met his burden of proof.”
Jim Golkow, who was co-counsel with Hessel, also noted another crucial point in the trial.
“During the direct examination of the treating trauma surgeon, Dr. Ivan Tarkin, the doctor told the jury that he sees the ‘worst of the worst,’ and that Mike Huchko’s injuries were the ‘worst of the worst,” Golkow said. “The doctor got choked up, and told the jury that he got the chills just seeing Mike in the courtroom looking well, and learning that Mike returned to work in nine months to provide for his six children.”
1. The Tractor and Jam Nuts
Plaintiff Michael Huchko was injured while attempting to climb into the cab of a tractor. The operator’s cab of the tractor is significantly above ground level, so the operator must use steps and handrails to climb into the cab. Huchko explained how the operator must “walk up in between two [large] wheels … There is a handrail on the door. … So you reach up, grab the handrail on the door, put your foot in [the step] and then there’s another handrail inside of here. … Then you climb up in the machine.”
The tractor is equipped with a parking brake lever, similar to that in a car. When the operator pulls up on the parking brake lever from inside the cab, the parking brake cable forces brake calipers to squeeze the brake disc connected to the vehicle’s axle. The parking brake cable is attached to the tractor with several jam nuts. The jam nuts are vital to ensuring the brake is properly adjusted and, if not fully tightened, the brake will not work properly.
2. The Accident
On May 29, 2014, Huchko stopped the tractor and exited the tractor to walk to his nearby truck so he could get the tools needed to ready the tractor for the next day’s operator. Before exiting the tractor, Huchko fully engaged the parking brake on the tractor. Although Huchko stopped the tractor on a slope of 10-12 degrees, this slope was within the maximum allowance of the tractor which was 21 degrees.
As he walked away from the tractor, he thought he saw “movement” over his shoulder. He turned around, looked at the tractor for one to two seconds, and saw no movement. To be cautious, Huchko walked back to the tractor to ensure the tractor was adequately stopped and secured so that it would not move down the slope. He reached up and grabbed the door handle of the cab. He put his right foot onto the tractor step. He began to pull himself up. As he did this, the step swung in, spinning Plaintiff around. Plaintiff put his left foot down on the ground to balance himself, next to the tire. He then heard a “clanging” sound “kind of like if you threw your car in park while you are moving.” Immediately after that, the tractor drifted backwards again, the tire trapped his foot, and then the tractor proceeded to slowly roll over him.
There were no eyewitnesses to this accident. At some point after he was run over, a passerby Joe Stanek discovered Plaintiff sitting motionless in the field near the tractor. Mr. Stanek testified that Plaintiff told him that the tractor rolled over him when he was “checking” something on the tractor.
Plaintiff suffered severe injuries, including degloving injuries of tibia and fibula; bilateral femur fractures; left open tibia fracture; operative I&D and ORIF of tibia; bilateral ORIF of femur fractures; left non-occlusive dissection; fractured sacrum and coccyx; acute respiratory failure/blunt thoracic injury; bilateral pneumothorax; bilateral pulmonary contusion and atelectasis; left scapular fracture; left 1-4, 9-11 and right 1st rib fractures. Dr. Ivan Tarkin, Plaintiff’s primary trauma surgeon, testified that Mr. Huchko was “as traumatized as you can get.”
3. The Cause of the Accident
The accident was thoroughly investigated by all parties and their experts shortly afterward. As part of the testing process, which was done with all parties and their experts present, the tractor was placed on a similar slope with the emergency brake fully engaged. The video showed the tractor slowly creeping backwards even with the parking brake engaged, until it eventually released down the slope. This test was videoed and shown to the jury.
Plaintiff’s expert concluded that the parking brake did not work because a critical “jam nut” on the brake assembly was not correctly torqued by Baker & Sons when it last serviced the tractor. As a result, the jam nut eventually vibrated loose and became detached from the brake assembly. Counsel for Baker & Sons acknowledged in his opening statement that a loose jam nut on the parking brake will lead to “serious problems.”
The evidence proved that the last person to touch the jam nut was a mechanic from Baker & Sons. The mechanic had replaced the parking brake cable assembly before the accident. It was undisputed that the tractor was used only 911 hours from the time the mechanic replaced the jam nut until the time of the accident, and that no one else serviced the brake after Baker & Sons did so.
Baker & Sons’ trial witness Mike Kuhn admitted that a post-accident photograph showed a loose jam nut. When shown the photograph of the loose jam nut, Kuhn stated:
Q: And under no circumstances if a mechanic does his job right should he allow that nut to be in that position, correct?
Q: And the only way a jam nut will come loose is if it is not properly torqued and then over time because of vibrations and use it will just unloosen [sic] on its own, is that fair?
A: That’s the only way?
Q: That’s the only way a jam nut is going to come loose, if it is not torqued correctly and it will vibrate off?
Q: Do you agree with that?
Kuhn admitted that if the jam nut on the subject tractor was not torqued and it became loose, then Baker & Sons’ mechanic did not do his job and Baker & Sons is responsible for causing Huchko’s accident.
Defendant called an expert witness, Gary Osterholt, who was offered to contradict Plaintiff’s theory of liability. Osterholt ultimately agreed that Plaintiff’s theory of liability was the most likely scenario. The expert’s testimony was:
Q: You would agree that the most likely scenario given the facts that you have, the most likely scenario sir, is that the jam nut came loose 911 hours after [the Baker & Sons mechanic] tightened it because he didn’t torque it to spec. That’s the most likely scenario, correct?
A: It is a good likelihood that that is what happened, yes.
Q: It is likely that it happened that way, correct?
A: Likely but not impossible that it was the only way that it occurred.
A: Fifty-one percent, yeah.
[Mr. Hessel]: Now sir, I don’t have any other questions for you.
4. The Verdict
The jury determined that Defendant Baker & Sons was 75% negligent and Plaintiff was 25% negligent, and returned a gross verdict in the amount of $2,931,049. After reducing this amount for 25% comparative negligence, the net award was $2,198,286.75 before including delay damages.
5. The Appeal
Baker & Sons filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court affirmed the judgment just six weeks later. Baker & Sons paid the judgment in full, including pre- and post-judgment interests and costs.
Shortly before the trial, Plaintiff entered into a confidential settlement with the co-defendant, the company that manufactured the tractor. This amount was added onto the full judgment that Baker & Sons paid, without any offset whatsoever.