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Rookie Trucker Owes Millions for Fatal Crash

(CN) - A truck driver who caused a fatal crash when he pulled onto a dark highway without signaling owes more than $2.1 million to a Pennsylvania family, a federal judge ruled.

The evidence showed that Sukhwinder Singh had been driving a tractor-trailer on Interstate 78 in Lebanon County, Pa., when he missed a turn during the wee hours of Nov. 13, 2009.

After pulling over and stopping the truck, Singh allegedly failed to turn on his flashers or check for traffic before pulling back onto the highway at 17 mph.

Eric Claxton, a 36-year-old father of four, then crashed his truck into Singh's.

For the next two hours, Claxton allegedly suffered severe and conscious pain and suffering from burns covering his entire body. He was pronounced dead at 4:57 a.m.

Claxton's passenger, Eric Burks, also died from severe burns.

The widowed Kamilah Claxton sued Singh and his California-based employer, Sukhchan Singh dba PVR Transport, for negligence, vicarious liability, punitive damages and wrongful death.

Claxton said that Singh had never received any on-the-job training and had been unfamiliar with both the route he was driving and the truck's communication equipment.

Plus, Singh had received his commercial driving license only one month before the accident, after failing the written test twice and the driving test once, the complaint stated.

The suit was stayed until last year, pending Delaware's regulatory review of the defendants' insurance company, Federal Motor Carrier Risk Retention Group.

After the Middle District of Pennsylvania found both defendants liable for the accident and Burks' death, U.S. District Judge William Caldwell granted Claxton's unopposed motion for summary judgment on all claims Nov. 18.

Singh acted negligently when he "entered the stream of traffic in an unsafe manner, failed make sure the road was clear, and failed to use his flashers," the ruling stated.

Caldwell also found PVR Transport vicariously liable for the accident, as "Sukhchan Singh showed disregard for the health and safety of decedent by knowingly permitting an inexperienced driver to operate the truck."

After holding a bench trial last week, the court said Claxton's family deserved compensatory and punitive damages.

"Mr. Sukhchan Singh, the employer, is liable on the basis of respondeat superior, but was also grossly negligent in failing to maintain his vehicle in compliance with state and federal law, particularly with regard to having required safety inspections and correcting defects in its braking equipment," Caldwell wrote. "He was also grossly negligent in entrusting his vehicle to Sukhwinder Singh, an inexperienced truck driver who had failed the written test and driving test multiple times before finally earning his commercial driving license. Singh was not made familiar with communication equipment in the truck, which might have helped in avoiding the accident, and in summoning help following the collision. Considering the exhibits introduced at trial, and the presentation of plaintiff's counsel, we conclude that compensatory damages are payable by both defendants, and that Sukhchan Singh is liable for punitive damages."

In a separate verdict, Caldwell ordered both defendants to pay more than $2.1 million for lost wages, pain and suffering, and estate-administration expenses. The employer meanwhile must pay another $100,000 in punitive damages.

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