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$4.5 Million Verdict in New Jersey for Negligent Maintenance of Pallet Truck

A Camden, NJ jury returned a verdict of $4.5 million for the family of a warehouse worker who suffered disabling and, ultimately, fatal injuries in a workplace accident. On Sept. 22, 2005, James Wilkerson, then 47-years- old, was operating a pallet truck (a type of material handling equipment used to move pallets of boxes) in the course of his employment with the Pitman Warehouse in Pitman, NJ. While attempting to slow down at a “T” intersection within the warehouse, the throttle control used to brake the truck (an electronic braking mechanism known as “plugging”) abruptly failed. As a result, Mr. Wilkerson was crushed against a steel shelving rack and suffered massive abdominal injuries, leading to multiple hospital admissions and surgical procedures. After a painful and difficult period of treatment, he passed away as a result of complications from his injuries on Dec. 4, 2009.

Attorneys Alan M. Feldman, Daniel J. Mann, and Edward S. Goldis represented Mr. Wilkerson, and later his surviving wife and son. The attorneys contended that the pallet truck Mr. Wilkerson was operating was required to be maintained by the defendants, Campbell’s Auto Express and Material Handling Supply (MHS). In a lawsuit commenced in 2007, the plaintiff alleged that the inadequate maintenance and inspection, by both Campbell’s and MHS, was responsible for the failure of the throttle-controlled electronic braking system. The plaintiff further claimed that the defendants violated OSHA regulations and industry standards by failing to provide Mr. Wilkerson with equipment that was safe for use.

Liability was hotly disputed by both defendants, who claimed that they were not negligent in maintaining the pallet truck, and that Mr. Wilkerson had been distracted and had not tried to plug brake. Alternatively, if the plug brakes did in fact fail, the defendants contended that Mr. Wilkerson should have used the mechanical brakes, turned out of the way of the shelving rack or jumped off of the pallet truck in order to avoid the accident. In addition to denying responsibility for the accident, the defendants also argued that Mr. Wilkerson had a significantly diminished life expectancy unrelated to his injuries as a result of a claimed recurrence of a previously diagnosed lymphoma, which the plaintiff’s doctors said had been cured.

After more than six weeks of trial,  the jury delivered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and only against the defendant Campbell’s in the amount of $4.5 million. The verdict amount was reduced by 25 percent for comparative negligence assessed against James Wilkerson, but the recovery was enhanced by a “high-low” agreement entered into with MHS shortly before the verdict, pursuant to which MHS was separately obligated to pay the plaintiff a “low” of $950,000 regardless of the outcome. Pre-judgment interest will bring the gross amount recovered to approximately $4.8 million. An additional amount was obtained in a pretrial confidential settlement with the product manufacturer.