American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear is planning to lead the organization in fighting large court verdicts against the trucking industry. He claims the association is always quick to compensate those involved in cases in which the ATA is at fault, but that most cases are not being settled fairly.
“We’re growing very tired as an industry of being picked on by the plaintiff’s bar,” Spear said. “I think we’re growing very tired of padding the pockets of trial lawyers at the expense of trucking jobs, and we’re just not going to stand for it anymore.” Spear claims these verdicts are an “all-out assault” against the trucking industry, and therefore, ATA should be positioning itself to fight back.
Spear told Transport Topics Radio that he believes the number of lawsuits against the trucking industry is increasing as attorneys who specialize in these kinds of lawsuits are amping up their advertising. These are what he calls “nuclear” lawsuits.
He claims these “massive” suits come against the trucking industry regarding incidents that “are clearly not [its] fault,” and that trial lawyers in these particular suits are working a false narrative that the industry is “devastating the fabric of families involved in these accidents,” which he claims are usually not at the hands of truckers.
However, as any individual who has learned of any trucking-involved accident knows, this is clearly not the case.
We recently wrote about a historic “underride accident” case that comes after a slew of these accident reports over the past few years. Underride accidents take place when a car slides underneath a tractor trailer, and is one of the deadliest types of accidents on U.S. roadways.
The particular case referenced occurred when a family was awarded $42 million in a lawsuit against trucking company Barkandhi Express and Utility, when 16-year-old Riley Hein’s car became trapped under the side of a trailer made by Utility Manufacturing Company, causing the truck to drag Riley’s car for a half mile until it caught on fire, killing Riley immediately.
Trailers are not currently required to have side guards, even though the trucking industry has admitted in trial that over 200 people a year die in underride accidents.
The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association says adding the weight of new guards to trailers would require companies to add more tractor trailers onto the roads, which it says would be more of an inconvenience than a safety benefit.
What is worse–documents revealed in Riley’s case show the TTMA asking major trailer manufacturers to provide detailed information regarding side guard costs so that the association could be able to potentially develop defense strategies against future underride lawsuits.
Still, Chris Spear and the American Trucking Associations have been handpicking cases to highlight only what they hope will gain public traction in opposition of lawsuits against the trucking industry.
Spear brought up a particular case in his Transport Topics interview, which occurred in 2014 and involved a pickup truck crossing a median and colliding with a tractor-trailer on a Texas interstate. The family of the pickup driver argued in court that the trucker should have pulled over due to inclement weather conditions, and the jury awarded them close to $90 million. The carrier, Werner Enterprises, is still working to appeal this decision.
“We’re paying substantial money to make [verdicts like these] right, and this [legal] profession needs to be called out,” says Spear.
However, Spear isn’t giving all of the facts of the case. According to court documents, evidence shows Werner had been staying quiet in regards to its disregard for safety policies around new student drivers. Each year, Werner hires 4,000 new drivers without previous truck driving experience. The driver in this case was a student driver, who exceeded 60 mph in icy conditions. The National Weather Service had been reporting freezing rain and icy roads 12 hours before the collision, yet Werner never communicated this warning to its driver.
“Werner’s lack of basic safety systems and its inadequate training processes for students drivers–combined with the business model of assigning student drivers on expedited deliveries–is creating a highly dangerous and unsustainable dynamic on U.S. Highways,” said the family’s co-lead counsel, Eric Penn of the Penn Law Firm.
What Spear also fails to mention is that the jury had heard the extent of the evidence and made what they believed to be a fair verdict. Of course, juries can make an incorrect judgment, but even when they do make a verdict against the trucking industry, tort reform comes into play.
Tort reform limits the recoveries awarded to those harmed by trucking industry dangers. This turns out to be nonsensical, as no two cases are the same and should always be judged on their own merits, not by limits on recovery.
The American Trucking Associations feels differently. Spear says verdicts like the one in the pickup truck case have made him decide to pledge to actively work with government leaders on tort reform efforts, even though he knows the overall view on the topic may not be in his favor.
“On the federal level, the votes may not be there for federal tort reform. In fact, I know that.”
If these limits weren’t enough, we have the trucking industry going to extreme lengths to avoid admitting fault in accidents. Not only is Utility Trailer Manufacturing Company working to appeal the $19 million it had to pay for its part in the verdict of Riley’s case, but it offered the Hein family a $14 million settlement if they kept all internal documents quiet.
In another case against Werner, court documents showed the trucking company staying quiet about its disregard for safety policies in regards to new student drivers–Werner hires 4,000 new drivers a year without any previous truck driving experience.
What Spear also doesn’t mention is the fact that trucking companies and their insurers hire as expensive and prestigious law firms for their cases as possible–so, not only are jurors always making decisions based on information from both sides, but these law firms are powerful and know how to swing a case in their favor–whether or not their techniques are ethical.
If verdicts like the ones Spear mentions are so unfair, what does that say about the trucking industry’s position and their lawyers’ abilities to make a compelling argument?