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$3.5 million awarded over trucker’s wrongful death

A jury has returned a $3.5 million verdict on behalf of a California trucker who died in a truck fire caused by an extremely damaged transmission.

The Fresno superior court jury found for the family of the late Amarjit Khunkhun of Fresno, following testimony from an expert on the origin and cause of fires and a truck mechanical specialist.

They testified leaking transmission fluid had severely harmed the transmission, said Khunkhun’s attorney Bill Robins. Additional testing showed these leaks caused the fire, which began underneath the cab, Robins said Oct. 3.

Early on March 23, 2010, witnesses found a 2000 Freightliner Classic fully engulfed in flames beside Interstate 40 West near San Jon, N.M. Khunkhun’s body was found in the sleeper of the truck, owned by GMG Trucking of Fresno.

Avtar Gill, co-owner and co-operator of the one-truck company, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Gill was hauling produce for Trius Trucking Broker from Fresno to Columbus, Ohio, when he heard transmission noise in one gear. No problems had been indicated during a March 5 transmission inspection.

Transmission fluid was added in Oklahoma City but the noise persisted. Sixty miles northeast of Oklahoma City, Gill informed Trius that he would unable to deliver. Trius told him Khunkhun also was taking produce to Columbus, and both loads could be delivered using Khunkhun’s truck.

Gill met up with Khunkhun and told him about the transmission, and they delivered the produce together. Khunkhun then was assigned another load, which they transported from Michigan to where Gill left his truck, near Oklahoma City. Gill inspected his truck before announcing he would deadhead to California.

But Khunkhun felt unwell, so they decided to follow each other back to California. If he did not improve, they could exchange trucks so Gill could delivery Khunkhun’s load on time. Gill’s truck did not indicate further problems, so they exchanged trucks at a Texas rest area.

On March 23, 2010, Gill’s truck was found fully engulfed in flames beside Interstate 40 West near San Jon, N.M. The state fire marshal concluded the fire began in the cab where Khunkhun’s body was found.

The field medical examiner found what she thought was the top of a camping stove resting on the decedent’s chest and head. When the two men had driven together, Gill had witnessed Khunkhun heating food on a small camp stove. The local fire chief listed the fire’s probable cause as a propane explosion.

Robins pointed out the investigation did not uncover a tank or stove. He introduced evidence that verifying a transmission leak requires lying down and looking up. Gill had not done that, nor had he checked his transmission oil level. The transmission fluid leaked during truck operation, probably at the gasket. It would collect under the truck and vaporize when it struck heated components. The fluid and resulting vapor found the exhaust, which was hot enough to ignite both. The fire began under the driver portion of the truck’s cab and Khunkhun died after inhaling the carbon monoxide that entered the cab.

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