Two Trucking Companies Hit with $1 Billion Verdict in Death of Florida Teenager

Connor Dzion had only attended two weeks of classes at the University of North Florida in 2017 when a distracted semi-truck driver slammed into a line of cars on Sept. 4. Dzion had been in standstill traffic for over an hour on Interstate 95 near Yulee because another semi-truck driver had flipped his vehicle ahead of him, blocking movement on the highway.

Source: Florida Times Union | Published on August 26, 2021

Senior man driving a truck and texting on a mobile phone.

His mother, Melissa Dzion, realized her son was late returning home from visiting his girlfriend and used the Find My iPhone feature to look for him. She rushed to the site. But the crash had ultimately killed her 18-year-old son.

On Aug. 20 after just five days of testimony and four hours of deliberation, the Nassau County jury handed down a verdict of over $100 million to the Jacksonville teenager's parents for pain and suffering for the loss of their son and $900 million in punitive damages against AJD Business Services Inc., the company whose truck driver had crashed ahead of Dzion and stalled traffic.

The case also named Kahkashan Carrier, Inc. of Canada in the lawsuit. Its truck driver crashed into the line of stopped cars, killing Connor. The driver was traveling on cruise control at 70 miles an hour and the data recorder showed he did not attempt to brake until one second before the fatal crash.

The driver working for AJD Business Services was distracted by his cell phone, driving over the legal limit of hours and did not even have a commercial driver’s license when he flipped his truck and caused the accident that stalled traffic, according to the family's lawyer.

The drivers of the trucks were distracted by their phones while driving

During a news conference Tuesday, the Curry Pajcic of Pajcic & Pajcic law firm described the involvement of the two drivers of the trucks: Russel Rogatenko with AJD Business Services and Yadwinder Sangha with Kahkashan Carrier.

Rogatenko plowed his truck into the back of a car trailered by an RV, causing it to flip and burst into flames, the lawyers said. That accident stopped traffic on the road for miles.

“One of the reasons the jury returned the verdict they did, which matches the evidence, is because [Rokatengo] was driving distracted by cell phone use,” Pajcic said. “We got his rescue records in which he told rescue [workers] that he was looking down at his phone when he hit that car and caused it to explode into flames.”

Pajcic said Rokatengo was an immigrant from the Ukraine who walked into the offices of AJD Business Services and was given a job with no background check or even a commercial license to drive a truck. He also had previous violations for driving aggressively and speeding.

Sangha, who drove the fully loaded tractor-trailer that hit the line of cars and killed Connor, didn’t hit his brakes until one second before impact, despite passing signs set up by Florida law enforcement alerting to a crash ahead, according to Pajcic.

“Along came Yadwinder Sangha who can't read English, in violation of the rules that every driver must be able to read road signs in order to drive in America,” Pajcic said. “Yadwinder was on his 25th hour of a road trip that took him from Quebec all the way down the Eastern Seaboard, all the way to Palm Beach.”

Lawyers for the Dzion family were not able to get Sangha’s cellphone records because he went back to Canada and refused to produce them.

Nearly $1 billion in damages against the trucking companies

According to court documents, the jury held Rogatenko and AJD responsible for 10 percent of negligence in the cause of Dzion's death and held Sangha and Kahkashan held responsible for 90 percent.

Connor’s parents, Melissa and David, were awarded $86,000,000 from Kahkashan Carrier for compensatory damages.

For emotional distress, the court ordered AJD Business Services to pay $16 million to Melissa Dzion while the punitive damages against the company totaled $900 million.

Both companies are still in business.

“This is a message to all those bad trucking companies: play by the rules the good trucking companies play by,” Pajcic said of both companies. “Whether or not they will remain in business is another story."

The Florida Times-Union attempted to contact the attorney for the defendants but did not hear back Tuesday.

Connor’s life and legacy

Connor Dzion graduated Magna Cum Laude from Creekside High School in Saint Johns in 2017. He loved to play golf and was a member of the North Florida Professional Golf Association Junior Tour. He had just started classes at UNF where he had goals of pursuing a doctorate degree in physical therapy.

His parents set up a foundation in his honor, which hosted two golf tournaments before the pandemic hit.

David Dzion described his son as “a very smart individual, very determined.”

“He did things right, took things seriously, he took good care of his car, took good care of his room...When he did something, he did it right,” his father said. “He was determined to do whatever he set his mind and heart to...That's why this hurts so bad.”