$2.8 million awarded for death on lift Manufacturer of lift found negligent in death of man.

October 18, 1991|By Raymond L. Sanchez | Raymond L. Sanchez,Evening Sun Staff

A Baltimore jury today found the manufacturer of a motorized lift negligent and awarded nearly $2.8 million to the family of a man who rode the four-ton vehicle to his death.

The Circuit Court jury deliberated 4 1/2 hours yesterday and this morning after 2 1/2 weeks of testimony before Judge Joseph I. Pines.

The panel found that Missouri-based Snorkel-Economy Division of Figgie International Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of industrial work platforms, was negligent in the manufacture and design of the UNO-33E, a versatile construction vehicle. Lawyers for Snorkel-Economy said they will appeal.

Ronald Tognocchi, assistant safety manager at AAI Corp., a Cockeysville defense contractor, was killed June 26, 1989, while investigating a previous accident in the same lift.

The jury found no negligence on the part of Siems Rental & Sales Co., of Baltimore, which leased the $30,000 lift to AAI.

Tognocchi's widow, Virginia, embraced her lawyers after the verdict was read.

"She has lived with this for two years and sat in this courtroom for two weeks listening that this accident was her husband's fault," said Paul D. Bekman, one of her lawyers.

"It has cleared her husband's name," said Daniel M. Clements, also representing the Tognocchi family.

The jury awarded a total of $2,789,000 to Virginia Tognocchi and her two children, ages 10 and 20, for loss of economic support, emotional distress and pain and suffering. One of the jurors called the verdict a "tough decision." "How do you place a dollar value on someone's life?" he asked.

Yesterday, Clements told the jury that tests showed the UNO-33E was dangerous since 1987, when it went on the market. The Tognocchi family is not asking for sympathy, he said.

"They want a verdict that says you don't build machines like this and get away with it."

But Robert Powell, attorney for the manufacturer, argued that Tognocchi voluntarily assumed a risk when he set out to "re-create" an earlier accident.

"He knew there was a danger involved," Powell said. "He encountered that danger and he did it voluntarily."

The jury of eight men and four women saw Tognocchi's death again and again -- captured in a gripping videotape. The camera was set up that day as Tognocchi investigated a June 20, 1989 accident.

AAI worker Roy Flaharty was seriously injured that day after being thrown from the basket of the UNO-33E. Snorkel-Economy and Siems immediately sent representatives to Cockeysville, but the inspectors found nothing wrong with the lift, according to testimony.

On June 26, with the camera rolling, Tognocchi climbed onto the UNO-33E. He maneuvered the vehicle out of a building and skidded to a stop. Tognocchi then put the vehicle into "reverse configuration" -- with the UNO-33E's braking wheels in front and the boom carrying him in the rear.

In a transcript of the video, Tognocchi explained he wanted to "get some more impact."

The lift headed down the incline and then stopped abruptly. The rear of the vehicle jumped as Tognocchi's body violently pitched forward into a metal bar. The impact crushed his breastbone and ribs, and put a 1 1/2 -inch hole in his heart.

Tests showed the UNO-33E's tendency to pitch into the air when stopped on slight inclines in the reverse configuration, according to testimony. But Snorkel-Economy did not conduct safety tests until after the vehicle went on the market.

In August 1989, Snorkel-Economy issued a "product safety bulletin," warning users of the danger of operating the UNO-33E in reverse configuration.

Powell told the jury Flaharty's accident was the first involving the UNO-33E. There are more than 1,000 of the vehicles in use nationwide.

Tognocchi "misused" the vehicle, he said. The assistant safety manager knew the UNO-33E would jump when he slammed on the brakes, Powell said.

"It was his intent to find out how he could make this vehicle buck up," Powell told the jury. "Unfortunately, he did. He assumed the risk."

Charles Dann, representing Siems, said his client did not know of the dangers associated with the UNO-33E.

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