(CN) - Manufacturers of a motor home that allegedly collapsed, trapped and suffocated a man may owe his family punitive damages, a federal judge ruled.
John Borzik had been checking for an anti-freeze leak under his 2008 Tour Master recreational motor home when the structure unexpectedly descended and trapped him, compressing his chest until he died, according to the complaint filed by his relatives.
Manufacturers of the motor home, including Gulf Stream Coach, Tour Master Recreational Vehicles and Freightliner Custom Chassis, are named as defendants to the suit filed nearly four months in Pittsburgh.
Borzik's mother, Wanda, and Bonnie Rapchak, the executrix of his estate, say that the height control or dump valves in the suspension system of the motor home's chassis malfunctioned while he was lying face-up on a creeper near the right side of the rear axle.
Wanda allegedly "perceived that [her son] was seriously injured or in the process of dying" shortly after the accident.
An air leak through a port in the front-mounted dump valve was detected soon after his body was found, according to the complaint.
The family sought punitive damages for product liability, emotional distress, wrongful death and survival.
U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry refused on Dec. 18 to dismiss the claims for punitive damages against Gulf Stream and Tour Master. Freightliner also cannot have judgment on the pleadings, according to the seven-page ruling.
"Here, this court will not dismiss the punitive damages aspect of plaintiffs' case at this time," McVerry wrote. "Plaintiffs aver that defendants designed, manufactured, and/or assembled a product which they knew or should have known was defective and posed grave danger to the user. These allegations must be taken as true at this stage of the proceedings and could support an award of punitive damages if proven. Discovery may ultimately reveal that defendants are correct, preventing this issue from ever reaching the factfinder. But that determination is best left for a later stage after plaintiffs have had the benefit of the discovery process. Accordingly, the motions will be denied without prejudice for defendants to re-raise their argument(s) at the summary judgment stage."
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