Monday, February 4, 2008

Chrysler cleared in deadly '04 accident

1 died, 1 injured at Westover repair shop

By Nancy Dooling
Press & Sun-Bulletin
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BINGHAMTON -- A federal jury ruled Monday that Chrysler Corp. was not negligent in a 2004 auto repair shop accident that seriously injured one worker and killed another when a Dodge pickup truck driven by an inexperienced co-worker suddenly jumped forward and pinned the two men against a workbench.

Matthew Sacco, now 52, unsuccessfully sought $5 million in damages at a trial in Binghamton's federal court before Senior U.S. District Court Judge Thomas J. McAvoy. Sacco sustained a shattered pelvis and severed urethra, and underwent multiple surgeries in the years since the July 26, 2004, crash at Tony B's Tire & Automotive Service Center on Main Street in Westover in the Town of Union, court records show.

Co-worker Timothy Davis, 40, was killed. Minutes before the incident, court records state, Davis told a third employee to move the truck from the center bay of the garage. The worker, Erin Schrader, 20, got into the truck, turned the ignition, and the vehicle leaped forward, striking Sacco and Davis.

Sacco's attorney, Thomas Pronti, said the vehicle malfunctioned because it did not have an interlock device to prevent the engine from starting until the clutch was depressed. Pronti said Chrysler should have installed the device.

But Chrysler's lead attorney, Kevin Szanyi, said the accident was caused by Schrader letting out the clutch and leaving a 4 1/2-foot tire mark on the garage floor. Schrader told Davis before the incident that she didn't know how to drive a stick-shift, but Davis told her to move it anyway, court records show.

The seven jurors did not hear from Schrader because she took her own life after the accident, a Chrysler spokesman confirmed. Davis' estate did not file a claim against Chrysler, nor was Tony B's named in Sacco's lawsuit.

Chrysler was not required to install the device under federal statutes, court records state.

"We commend the jury for agreeing with Chrysler that this accident was the direct result of poor judgment, driver inexperience and error, and not any defect in the 1994 Dodge Dakota 4-by- 4," said Louann Van Der Wiele, assistant general counsel for Chrysler.

A clutch interlock would not have prevented this accident because when Schrader depressed the clutch and started the engine, an interlock would have been disengaged, Van Der Wiele said.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration rejected a request in 1981 to require a clutch interlock on vehicles, stating there was "no demonstrable safety need."

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