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Punitive Award Possible in Spice-Related Crash

(CN) - A man who caused a car wreck while high on spice, killing a pair of twins celebrating their 40th birthday, may owe punitive damages, a federal judge ruled.

William McKernan and Lynn McKernan were fraternal twins who, in October 2011, were traveling together to New York City to celebrate their 40th birthday.

As they drove through Pennsylvania on Interstate 84, Wayne Kichar drove his dump truck off a ramp, crossed a 500-foot median, became airborne and crashed into the McKernans' Nissan.

The collision tore the roof of the car, and both McKernans died at the scene.

One of William and Lynn's sisters filed suit in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and William's widow filed a separate action for wrongful death, seeking punitive damages against Kichar and his employer, Cerminaro Construction Co.

They alleged that Kichar had been under the influence of marijuana and synthetic marijuana, widely known as "spice," at the time of the crash. Kichar also had prior convictions for driving under the influence and assault, as well as a contempt violation of a protection from abuse order, according to the complaints.

Melissa McKernan, the widow, and Elizabeth Graupman, the sister, later agreed to strike their request for punitive damages for wrongful death, because Pennsylvania law does not permit them in a wrongful death claim.

U.S. District Judge Malachy Mannion dismissed that claim last week but said the family can still seek punitive damages based on their survival and negligent entrustment claims.

Kichar and his employer argued that McKernan and Graupman failed to show that drug use actually "impaired" Kichar. They also said the complaint lacks specifics to prove Kichar consciously disregarded others' safety.

Mannion concluded, however, that "the federal standard still does not provide for fact pleading in which the plaintiffs must allege every detail of their claim in order to be entitled to relief."

"Viewing the facts alleged in the amended complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs, as the court must do on a motion to dismiss, it cannot be said at this stage that the plaintiffs can prove no set of facts that would prompt an award of punitive damages," Mannion wrote. "The plaintiffs have alleged enough such that it is sufficient to allow discovery to proceed."


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