Accident re-creation turns tragic, and it's all on tape Jury views safety manager's investigation at Cockeysville defense contractor.

October 10, 1991|By Raymond L. Sanchez | Raymond L. Sanchez,Evening Sun ...

Several days after a worker at AAI Corp. was thrown from the basket of a manlift, Ronald Tognocchi climbed onto the same four-ton vehicle. As AAI's assistant safety manager, it was his job to investigate accidents at the Cockeysville defense contractor.

A video camera, set up for his investigation, recorded Tognocchi maneuvering the vehicle down an incline outside a company building. Then he slammed on the brakes.

The basket jolted violently, throwing Tognocchi into a rail on the lift, crushing his breastbone and ribs, and putting a 1 1/2 -inch hole in his heart. Tognocchi was pronounced dead a short time later at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

The dramatic videotape, taken June 26, 1989, was played this week for a Baltimore Circuit Court jury, hearing testimony in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit alleging negligence by the lift's manufacturer and the Baltimore firm that leased it to AAI.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph I. Pines yesterday excused one of the 12 jurors, Todd Mosley, after the juror had handed one of Tognocchi's relatives a note Tuesday at the end of emotional testimony by the family. It said, "Be strong and trust in the Lord." Mosley was replaced by an alternate juror.

And the judge yesterday granted summary judgment for the defendants on the issue of punitive damages, ruling that their conduct was not malicious. The jury must now decide on issues of liability and whether to award compensatory damages.

The defendants are Missouri-based Snorkel-Economy Division of Figgie International Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of industrial work platforms and boom water towers for firefighting, and Siems Rental & Sales Co., of Baltimore, which leased the UNO-33E vehicle to AAI.

On June 20, 1989, AAI employee Roy Flaharty was thrown from the basket of the UNO-33E after applying the brakes on the same incline where Tognocchi was killed.

Flaharty was sent to GBMC with serious injuries. He survived and filed a product liability suit against the manlift's manufacturer.

After the Flaharty accident, Snorkel-Economy and Siems sent representatives to Cockeysville to inspect the manlift, according to testimony. After test-driving the UNO-33E several times, a Snorkel-Economy representative announced, "It's OK. You can put it back into service," plaintiffs' attorney Daniel M. Clements told the jury.

Clements said that Tognocchi found something "peculiar" with the UNO-33E's brakes during a June 23 test drive. Tognocchi set up another test run on June 26, captured on video, with a lawyer from AAI standing nearby.

In the video, Tognocchi maneuvers the vehicle out of hangar-like building and skids to a stop on the incline. He then drives back and puts the vehicle in the "reverse configuration" -- with the UNO-33E's braking wheels in the front and the basket carrying him in the rear.

"I don't know why he's doing that," someone can be heard saying in the video.

"That's OK," says the AAI lawyer, "film it anyway."

The video tape picked up Tognocchi's last words: "I'm going to take it down the other way. I think we'll get some more impact . . . I think this is the way it was."

The video tape shows the UNO-33E heading down the incline, then stopping abruptly. The huge rear wheels rose two feet in the air and almost flatten after coming down.

Like a dummy in automobile test crash films, Tognocchi's body violently pitches forward into a metal bar, crushing his chest. "God almighty" someone says as Tognocchi faintly moves his arms before sinking into unconsciousness.

There were no medical personnel nearby. And workers can be heard asking for someone who knows first aid or cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.

"This bar literally broke his heart," Clements told the jury. "It broke the heart of 8-year-old Dawn Tognocchi, now 10. It broke the heart of 18-year-old Scott Tognocchi, now 20. And it broke the heart of Virginia Tognocchi, his wife of 21 years."

Tognocchi, 45, was AAI's assistant safety manager for more than 10 years. He received $47,000 a year. He was described in testimony as so "safety-conscience" that he wore goggles when mowing the lawn. His wife and young daughter testified they have received psychological counseling after being destroyed emotionally.

"I guess devastated is really the only word," Virginia Tognocchi said, "to have him ripped away like that has taken a heck of a lot out of all of us."

A expert called by plaintiffs' lawyers testified that test drives of the UNO-33E, operated by remote control after the accidents, show the vehicle is "inherently dangerous."

The defense, expected to begin its case today, will try to show that the UNO-33E was not being operated properly at the time of the accidents. Robert Powell, who represents Snorkel-Economy, said Tognocchi "experimented" with the UNO-33E, using it in an unsafe manner. "He simply went a little too far in trying to re-create this accident," Powell said.

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