Family of trucker who died in fire awarded $3.5 million

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line staff writer | 10/8/2014

The family of a truck driver who died in a fire that consumed the cab of his tractor-trailer was awarded $3.5 million from a Fresno County jury following a wrongful death lawsuit against the man’s employer, GMG Trucking.

Amarjit Khunkhun died in March 2010 after his 2000 Freightliner caught fire on the side of Interstate 40 westbound near San Jon, New Mexico. Attorneys for Khunkhun’s family had argued that the poorly maintained vehicle leaked transmission fluid, which ignited underneath the cab of the truck.

The truck was owned by Jaswinder Gill, of GMG Trucking of Fresno. Her husband Avtar Gill was a co-owner and operator of the business. Khunkhun’s attorneys argued that the company violated federal safety regulations in the maintenance and inspection of the truck, resulting in the fatal fire. Those violations were related to statements the defendants made about the truck having a transmission leak, but failing to make the necessary repairs to the vehicle.

“The jury sent a clear message to the trucking industry that those companies who violate safety rules and place the public in danger will be held accountable for the harm that they cause,” Bill Robins, lead trial attorney for Khunkhun’s family said in a statement accompanying the verdict.

According to expert testimony given on behalf of the plaintiffs by Thomas Truss, a diesel mechanic expert with Truck Dynamics of Bryant, Texas, Avtar Gill was initially the driver of the Freightliner, when on March 19, he heard a ticking noise coming from the transmission. Hearing the noise, Gill exited the highway and pulled into a Flying J truck stop near Geary, Okla., where he spoke with an individual about his transmission. The individual was not an employee of the truck stop, but still poured approximately one quart of fluid in the transmission, which Gill testified reduced the noise but did not make it go away.

After leaving the Flying J, Gill made it about 60 miles down the road, where he stopped at a Phillips 66 gas station, where he left his truck. At that point, according to testimony, he contacted Khunkhun, who showed up in another truck and helped Gill deliver his load, as well as the load Khunkhun was also hauling. Gill also contacted his dispatcher, who advised him not to take the truck any further. The truck remained at the gas station until March 22, when the two men returned to pick it up and drive both vehicles back to California.

At no point during the time the men were away was the truck inspected or serviced for repairs, nor did Gill check the transmission fluid level on the truck before embarking for the return trip, according to the testimony. Gill reportedly told police officers after the fire that he had wanted to bring the truck back to California because it would be cheaper to repair locally rather than out-of-state.

At some point on the return trip, Gill and Khunkhun switched vehicles, with Khunkhun now behind the wheel of the Freightliner. Khunkhun made it approximately 135 miles before the truck burst into flames.

A subsequent investigation by a private fire investigator found that the fire was caused by transmission fluid that escaped from the transmission and was ignited by the turbo charger and exhaust systems. The burning fluid released carbon monoxide vapors, which entered the cab and poisoned Khunkhun, causing his death.

The plaintiff’s investigation also refuted initial claims that Khunkhun started the fire in the cab by using a camping stove. No evidence of such a device was found at the scene, and the source of the fire was determined to have begun under the cab.

The verdict was reduced by 15 percent as a result of the jury finding that Khunkhun himself was comparatively negligent.

“The jury’s view was Khunkhun never should have driven the truck knowing that there might be a problem,” Robins said.

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