LONG BEACH PRESS-TELEGRAM
By Kristopher Hanson, Staff Writer
SAN PEDRO – The family of a longshoreman who was run over by a Dodge pickup at a container terminal in 2004 has been awarded $55.2 million by a jury who found the truck mechanically defective.
Richard Mraz, 38, was working at the American Presidents Line facility on Terminal Island when the pickup reversed into him after he had exited it, knocking him to the ground and resulting in a fatal head injury.
Jurors found that a “park-to-reverse” defect in the Dodge Dakota, owned by APL, caused Mraz’s death, and that automaker DaimlerChrysler was negligent in design of the vehicle’s transmission system.
“DaimlerChrysler made a conscious decision to risk the public safety instead of issuing a proper product recall involving over a million cars,” said attorney Charles D. Naylor, a San Pedro-based maritime law attorney who represented Mraz’s widow, Adriana, and their three children.
“It’s just wrong, and in this case, it resulted in someone being killed.”
The award, announced Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court following a month-long trial, includes $5.2 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages.
The jury also found Mraz 10 percent at fault and APL 15 percent at fault.
DaimlerChrysler is considering an appeal and blames the accident on driver error, contending Mraz left the 1992-model vehicle in reverse when he exited.
“DaimlerChrysler shares the jury’s obvious sympathy with the Mraz family over this tragic accident,” said company attorney Louann Van Der Wiele. “However, the accident occurred because Mr. Mraz ignored proper safety procedures by exiting a vehicle that was still running then compounding this error by attempting to jump into the vehicle while it was moving.”
The accident occurred April 13, 2004, when Mraz, a longshoreman since 1994, was knocked to the ground when he attempted to stop the truck as it was reversing.
The truck eventually rolled over him before co-workers were able to stop it. The father of three and San Pedro native slipped into a coma and died May 1.
Although DaimlerChrysler issued a recall on Dodge Dakotas in 2000 to fix the “park-to-reverse” problem, the individual truck Mraz was driving had not been repaired and the automaker could not prove it had sent a notice to APL regarding the recall, jurors found.
Regardless of the recall, the jury found DaimlerChrysler’s overall effort to repair the defect, which affected all 1988-2003 Dakotas, had been inadequate.
“The evidence showed that the recall would have had absolutely no effect on the accident as it happened to Richard Mraz,” said Naylor, who worked with co-counsel Scott Nealey and Robert Nelson.
The alleged defect occurs when the gear is placed in what appears to be the park position, then allegedly slips into powered reverse after a short delay.
DaimlerChrysler adamantly denies any possible defect caused vehicles to suddenly slip into reverse, but during trial, plaintiffs introduced a 1999 internal memo by DaimlerChrysler indicating the company was aware of a potential problem regarding the parking gear, but feared liability and failed to properly investigate, Naylor said.
Adriana Mraz said she was pleased the automaker was held responsible.
“My goal is to make the public aware of the problems these vehicles have,” she said Thursday. “No matter how much money you have, a corporation has the responsibility to ensure the products they manufacture are safe.”
APL, which operates a large terminal in the Port of Los Angeles, settled with the family before the trial began.