Our client’s husband was tragically killed at a scrap metal yard in Upstate New York when the driver of a tractor-trailer recklessly sought to dump a load of crushed cars and tin when our client’s husband was in the process of parking a truck only a few feet away. The defendant operating the tractor-trailer knew that his trailer was unusually prone to tipping over because the trailer load was top heavy and had been packed too tight. Nevertheless, despite knowing that our client’s husband was too close to safely dump a scrap metal load, and that his trailer was at an elevated risk of tipping over, this defendant continued to elevate his trailer higher and higher in an attempt to dislodge the stuck load. Predictably and regrettably, the trailer tipped over, landing on our client’s husband’s truck and killing him.
After a lengthy discovery process, this defendant moved for summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages, seeking a court order that our client was not entitled to such damages at trial. This defendant’s theory was that he did not have enough time to act recklessly, or demonstrate a conscious disregard for another person’s safety (the legal standard to justify an award of punitive damages), between the time he first noticed our client’s husband parking and when the accident took place.
Our firm vigorously opposed this motion, with opposition drafted by Benjamin P. Jacobs, our firm’s Appellate Attorney. As part of our opposition motion, our firm utilized damaging statements made by this defendant at his deposition, which was taken by Stuart L. Finz, our firm’s Senior Trial Attorney and CEO. Our motion demonstrated that this defendant’s own testimony proved that he had an opportunity to stop elevating his trailer and prevent the accident. When pressed during his deposition, this defendant admitted that he knew our client’s husband was in close proximity and nevertheless made a deliberate choice to continue raising his trailer in an attempt to dislodge and dump his load of crushed cars and tin. This defendant further admitted that he took these actions not because they were safe, but because he felt entitled to dump the load at the dump zone, since he arrived there before our client’s husband. In this defendant’s perverse view, that meant he could continue raising his trailer regardless of the dangers he posed to those around him. This testimony, procured during an all-day videotaped deposition session, highlights the importance of taking an aggressive and thorough deposition of target defendants. In addition, in connection with the submission of our motion, we retained an industry-leading trucking expert, who analyzed the events leading up to the accident and confirmed that the testimony demonstrated that this defendant acted recklessly in his operation of his dump trailer.
On March 25, 2021, Stuart L. Finz, argued our motion before the Honorable Gregory R. Gilbert. Shortly thereafter, Judge Gilbert, in a careful and detailed decision reviewing and quoting this defendant’s deposition testimony at length, denied this defendant’s motion for summary judgment. As a result, when the case proceeds to trial, our client will be able to seek not just compensatory damages for her family’s loss of her husband, but also punitive damages designed to punish this defendant and send a message that the people of New York will not tolerate such callous disregard for the safety and lives of their fellow citizens.
- Cindy Kotwas, as as Administratrix of the Estate of David Owen Kotwas, Deceased, and Individually, v. Frederick A. Pfiitze, Heavy Duty Tire & Brake, LLC, William Mcfarren d/b/a B McFarren, Ben Weitsman of Albany, LLC, Upstate Shredding LLC, Weitsman Shredding, LLC, Mac Trailer Enterprises, Inc., Mac Trailer Manufacturing, Inc., and STS Trailer & Truck Equipment
- Index No.: EFC-2017-1684
- Oswego County Supreme Court