Wheel collapses on garbage truck, causing driver spinal injuries

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Recent Cases: Transportation

August/September 2012, Volume 31, No. 4

Wheel collapses on garbage truck, causing driver spinal injuries 

Mariolle v. Volvo Trucks N. Am., Inc., No. 3:09-cv-04250 (N.D. Cal. May 18, 2012).

Raymond Mariolle, 46, was driving a garbage truck when the hub on one of the truck’s front wheels fractured, causing the wheel to fall off. The 55,000-pound truck fell to the ground, and Mariolle, who was wearing his seat belt, was pulled to the ground with the truck.

Mariolle suffered compression lumbar spinal injuries that resulted in a bulging disk, spinal stenosis, and narrowing of the spinal canal. The injuries left him with severe back pain and radiating leg pain and numbness. After a lumbar laminotomy failed to relieve his symptoms, he underwent a two-level lumbar laminectomy to reduce spinal-cord compression, followed by a third surgery to repair leaking cerebrospinal fluid. Mariolle continues to suffer debilitating back pain, and his doctors have recommended a three- to four-level lumbar fusion—a procedure that is risky and promises less than a 50 percent chance of success. His past medical expenses totaled about $101,800, and his future medical expenses are estimated at about $420,000.

At the time of the incident, Mariolle was working as a driver for the sanitation company Waste Management, Inc. He returned to work part-time, with non-driving duties, about 10 months after the incident, but continuing pain forced him to stop working within two years. He is now permanently disabled. His past lost earnings totaled $278,000, and his future lost earnings are estimated at about $1.55 million.

Mariolle and his wife sued Consolidated Metco, Inc., which manufactured the wheel hub; Volvo Truck North America, Inc., which built the truck cab and chassis; and Wittke Waste Equipment, the manufacturer of the garbage truck body, alleging design defect, negligence, and breach of express and implied warranties. The plaintiffs contended that Consolidated Metco rated the hubs as having a capacity of 10,000 pounds each—or 20,000 pounds per axle—when in fact they should have been rated at 8,000 pounds, or 16,000 pounds per axle. Moreover, the plaintiffs contended that the company failed to notify purchasers and users that the hub was overrated after learning of this fact based on increased warranty returns from customers.

The plaintiffs also claimed that Consolidated Metco had advised one of Volvo’s engineers in writing that the hub was overrated, but Volvo likewise failed to notify purchasers and users. Suit against Wittke, which manufactured and installed the body of the garbage truck onto the Volvo chassis, alleged that it designed the vehicle with a deployable rear axle that shifted additional weight to the already overloaded front end.

Evidence showed that the overloaded hub failed at approximately 83,000 miles, while the service life of the hubs was 500,000 miles. The plaintiffs contended that the premature failure was caused solely by overloading.

Consolidated Metco acknowledged that the hubs were rated at 10,000 each but argued that the rating was subject to certain parameters of use and that Volvo should have known of those parameters but exceeded them. Volvo acknowledged that it had received a phone call and email from Consolidated advising of the parameters for proper use of the hubs, but argued that the call and email did not amount to a formal notice that would have necessitated a recall.

The defendants also argued, among other things, that Mariolle’s employer failed to inspect the hubs on all similar vehicles after a similar failure one month before the incident.

The defense also contended that Mariolle was responsible for the hub’s failure because he overloaded the vehicle. The defendants presented expert testimony that the truck was occasionally overloaded and that this practice shifted weight to the front axle. On that cross-examination, the expert—an employee of Volvo Truck—acknowledged that the overload distributed the weight over the rear of the vehicle and that a mere 20 pounds would have shifted to the front axle. The defendants subsequently abandoned the argument regarding Mariolle’s fault.

The jury found for the plaintiffs on all four theories and allocated fault at 52 percent to Consolidated Metco, 30 percent to Volvo, 12 percent to Wittke, and 6 percent to Waste Management. It awarded about $11.4 million, including $1.5 million for loss of consortium.

The workers’ compensation carrier asserted a lien of about $200,000.

The defendants have moved for a new trial.

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ members Gary B. Roth and John M. Anton, both of Oakland, Calif.

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