Posted on Mar 03, 2006
Jury Awards Family $8 Million in Death
Oakton High Student One of Two Killed by Trucker Who Fell Asleep
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006; Page B06
A Fairfax County jury awarded $8 million yesterday to the family of an Oakton High School student who was killed in 2002 when a truck driver fell asleep behind the wheel and crushed the car the teenager was riding in.
David Chu, 17, and Jacob Wilens, 16, had just finished their first day of school at Oakton, and Wilens was driving them home on Route 50 about 2:45 p.m. Sept. 3, 2002, when they stopped at a stoplight at Alder Woods Drive.
David Chu, left, and Jacob Wilens had just finished their first day at Oakton High School when they were hit by a truck and killed.
Dwayne Mongold, then 34, was a truck driver for Danella Construction Corp. heading to his home in West Virginia after a day of laying cable in the District. According to court records, Mongold told police he nodded off once as he drove west on Route 50 but kept driving the truck and trailer, with a combined weight of more than 34,000 pounds.
During the three-day trial, witnesses testified that Mongold's truck smashed into the Nissan Altima without braking. The Altima was driven into another car and then crushed by Mongold's truck, police said. The Chu family's attorney, Gregory L. Murphy, said Mongold did not wake up until after the crash. Mongold told police he last remembered passing a gas station nearly three-quarters of a mile away, Murphy said.
Chu and Wilens were killed instantly. Both were honor students, varsity swimmers and musicians.
Mongold was sentenced to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine and was ordered to speak to young drivers about the dangers of drowsy driving. He has served the time but has not carried out the obligation to speak publicly about his experiences, Murphy said.
Wilens's family settled out of court with Danella Construction and Mongold. Chu's family could not reach an agreement with the company or the driver and sued in March 2005.
After about three hours of deliberation over two days, the jury found both Danella and Mongold liable in Chu's wrongful death. The jury awarded $3 million to each of Chu's parents, Irwin and Jane Chu, and $2 million to his sister, Christine Chu. The award was solely for their pain and suffering, not for punitive damages or economic losses, Murphy said.
Mongold could not be located for comment. Danella officials in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., and their attorneys did not return calls last night.
The award is not subject to reduction by any legal limits under Virginia law, although Danella's attorneys can ask for it to be reduced or thrown out. The $8 million verdict is one of the largest in Fairfax in years, Murphy said.
The Chus did not want to be interviewed, Murphy said. He said the family hoped that "this verdict will have an impact on other construction companies that create situations where drivers of their trucks operate their vehicles while sleep-deprived, which puts everyone in harm's way."