Almost 300 court cases with jury verdicts of at least $1 million over the last five years have been made against trucking fleets.
In a new report made by the American Transportation Research Institute, named “Understanding the Impact of Nuclear Verdicts on the Trucking Industry,” the institution details the comprehensive research done regarding “nuclear verdicts” that took place between the years of 2006 and 2019.
In the 600 cases analyzed, it was found that big verdicts against motor carriers had been growing exponentially. Only four of these 600 were over $1 million in 2006, but had grown to over 70 cases of at least $1 million verdicts in 2014. ATRI’s consideration of nuclear verdicts, which are of $10 million or more, made up 71 total cases out of the 600.
“This issue has had a stifling impact on motor carriers and industry stakeholders–well beyond those involved in a truck crash,” said Moseley Marcinak Law Group partner, Rob Moseley. “ATRI’s research on litigation provides important guidance on leveling the playing field between truckers and trial lawyers, both in and outside of the courtroom.”
After creating a comprehensive analysis from dozens of insurance expert, motor carrier professional, defense attorney, and plaintiff attorney interviews, ATRI made recommendations for pretrial preparation modifications, explanations for changes in the litigation landscape, new mediation approaches, and analysis about how large verdicts affect overall safety.
In conclusion, ATRI found that the two main factors impacting verdict sizes wre crashes and litigation.
For crash factors, the institute focused on injuries sustained, the number of deaths, and the number of cars involved. For litigation, ATRI focused on expert witness presence.
“Five particular factors brought against a defendant yielded 100% verdicts in factor of the plaintiff,” the study said. “These issues included hours-of-service or log book violations, lack of a clean driving history, driving under the influence of controlled substances, fleeing the scene of the crash, and health-related issues.”
The severity of the injury, the number of people involved, the characteristics of people involved. and the makes and models of vehicles involved also had large effects on verdicts, ATRI said. Verdict sizes increased by over 1,600% percent when children were involved in crashes, regardless of who was at fault.
The study also found that the time between the date of the crash and the date of the verdict, traumatic brain injuries sustained during the crash, and the number of children injured or killed in a crash all significantly increase verdict sizes. On the other hand, the presence of a defense expert witness was found to decrease verdict sizes.
Injuries to spinal cords tended to at least double verdict sizes, increasing jury awards to just under $3.5 million. For rear-end crashes, plaintiffs win the verdict in almost 90% of cases. If a rear-end crash takes place in a work zone, that crash will bring in the highest verdict of any rear-end accident, averaging around $7.25 million per case. If a crash has a “spin and roll” incident, that case will likely bring in an award of almost $15 million.
“This study documents a frequency in excessive awards that, while not surprising, tells us that the trial system has gotten completely off track,” said Porter Rennie Woodard Kendall partner, Clay Porter. “Foundational changes are needed in the way we determine non-economic and punitive damages.”
In addition, insurance rates are clearly based on safety backgrounds, although fleets are now paying more than ever.
In ATRI’s study, a respondent stated that ‘low-risk’ carriers have seen up to 10% increases in insurance premiums, “while new ventures and average-to-marginal carriers are experiencing a 35% to 40% annual increase,” which has been continuing to rise for the last three years. “Based on ATRI’s operational cost data, small fleets and owner-operators pay out-of-pocket considerably more on a per-unit basis than larger fleets.”
Last month, we reported that in ATRI’s annual Top Industry Survey, a top research priority for 2020 is the impact of small settlements on the trucking industry. A study into this topic would look into legal settlements under $1 million and focus on each incident’s fleet response, as well as the frequency of those cases. It would also consider verdicts in comparison to settlements, which will aim to follow up on ATRI’s nuclear verdicts analyses.