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Companies sued over fiery Idaho crash that killed 3 airmen could face punitive damages

Interstate 84 Boise (Rschen7754/WikiCommons)

Three companies being sued by the families of three U.S. Air Force airmen could be liable for punitive damages when the case goes to trial. The airmen were killed when a semi driver plowed into the back of a slow-moving Jeep in a crowded construction zone on Interstate 84 in June 2018.

Ada County District Judge Peter Barton ruled last week that evidence presented in pretrial filings against Krujex Freight Transport Corp., Penhall Co. and Specialty Construction Supply could lead a jury to find a “reasonable likelihood” that all three companies should be punished with punitive damages if they’re found liable.

Senior Airman Carlos “C.J.” Johnson, 23, of Key West, Florida; Senior Airman Lawrence “Pit” Manlapit III, 26, of Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Senior Airman Karlie A. Westfall, 21, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were killed in a construction zone where only one of four eastbound lanes was open.

Trial is scheduled for Feb.. 22, 2022. If the defendants are found liable, a second phase to assess damages will take place in August.

“We are gratified to have the opportunity to pursue punitive damages and vindicate our clients’ rights, given the reckless and extreme deviation from reasonable standards of conduct by these companies,” Clay Robbins III, an attorney who represents Manlapit’s family, said in a statement.

Under Idaho law, plaintiffs must obtain permission from a judge to seek punitive damages — punishment for behavior found to be especially harmful. At trial, the “claimant must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, oppressive, fraudulent, malicious or outrageous conduct by the party against whom the claim for punitive damages is asserted.”

The award of punitive damages depends on a plaintiff’s ability to prove both a “bad act and a bad state of mind,” Barton wrote in his ruling. In Idaho, punitive damages are limited to $250,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded in a lawsuit, whichever is greater. The judge decides on the exact amount.

The families of Johnson and Manlapit argue that Krujex, which employed driver Illya Tsar, 42, who also died in the crash, repeatedly ignored safety standards for motor carriers. Barton found that Krujex lied “about important safety data” to Albertsons Cos., which hired the company to ship a load of apples from Yakima, Washington, to Methuen, Massachusetts.

The judge said that could indicate the required bad state of mind needed to obtain punitive damages. Barton also found that Krujex, a Vancouver, Washington, company that went out of business after the crash, failed to properly vet its drivers and hired Tsar without reviewing his background or driving record.

An investigation by the Idaho Statesman into Tsar’s driving record revealed more than 20 driving-related violations in four states — mostly in Oregon and Idaho — and evidence of more violations in other states.

Barton said that based on the evidence submitted so far, there is a “reasonable likelihood” that Krujex’s conduct was “oppressive, fraudulent, malicious or outrageous.”

The Johnson, Manlapit and Westfall families are also seeking punitive damages against Penhall, based in Irving, Texas, and Specialty Construction Supply of Meridian. They contend Penhall deviated multiple times from a traffic control plan and failed to obtain written authorization for changes.

While the traffic plan prohibited closing more than two eastbound lanes of I-84 near Cloverdale Road, Penhall repeatedly closed three of the four lanes between fall 2017 and spring 2018, Barton wrote.

“When it did so, Penhall knew, or should have known, of the consequences of its decision — traffic queues extending for about two miles and multiple congestion complaints from the public — which characterized the situation as ‘excessive’ and ‘extreme,’ ” Barton wrote. “The evidence may show Penhall Project Manager Jeromy Magill admitted the company’s urgency in completing the project was a paramount concern and that triple-lane closures would accelerate completion.”

Penhall argues that its actions did not demonstrate a bad act or a bad state of mind. It says it delegated responsibility for traffic control measures to Specialty Construction Supply and was unaware of the long freeway traffic backups.

Barton wrote that a Penhall project supervisor, Bruce Kidd, received a call from a state communications officer on June 15, 2018, a day before the wreck, informing him of numerous public complaints about traffic congestion.

“Mr. Kidd did not inform Specialty or make any adjustments ‘because he saw no reason to’ do so,” Barton wrote.

Delegation of any responsibilities to Specialty did not relieve Penhall of its duties, Barton wrote.

While the traffic plan called for a traffic control manager with at least five years of experience, Specialty hired Josh Roper, a certified traffic supervisor who had never served in that role on a highway construction project.

Roper informed an Idaho Transportation Department inspector after noticing traffic backing up “again and again” in spring 2018. But he took no action to open the closed lanes to alleviate congestion, and also did not notify ITD of the unauthorized lane closures, Barton wrote.

Specialty also argues that its conduct did not constitute a bad act or bad state of mind. It blamed Tsar’s actions in not slowing or stopping as the cause of the wreck.

Barton wrote that the evidence provided so far could lead a jury to find a “reasonable likelihood” that Penhall and Specialty could be held for punitive damages.

The families of Johnson and Manlapit had also sought to hold Albertsons liable for punitive damages. They contend Albertsons’ failure to vet its carriers constituted an “extreme deviation from reasonable standards of conduct.” They also claimed that because Albertsons also operates its own trucking fleet, the Boise grocer should have scrutinized Krujex more fully.

Albertsons said it relied on the U.S. Department of Transportation to assess safety management controls. The company believed it would have been notified by the federal agency if Krujex was deemed unsafe. Barton said Albertsons did not demonstrate bad faith and could not be held liable for punitive damages.

“While presently there are no punitive damage allegations against Albertsons, we are confident that the evidence we will have admitted at trial will demonstrate that Albertsons is no different than the other defendants in this case,” said Robbins, the attorney representing Manlapit’s family. “They all chose to cut corners on safety in the name of saving some money, and three young lives were lost as a result.”

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(c) 2021 The Idaho Statesman

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