Members of the trucking industry are continuing to battle against the rising numbers of nuclear verdicts that have been made against motor carriers–a fight that is far from over, experts say.
Chris Spear, President of American Trucking Associations recently stated that the industry itself was working more diligently than ever to fight these verdicts taking place in trucking accident litigation.
“We’re growing very tired as an industry being picked on by the plaintiff’s bar,” said Spear last year during an ATA conference. “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. It’s an all-out assault against the industry, and we need to be in a position to fight back.”
The Omnibus Tort Reform bill in Louisiana brought an end to the law banning trucking attorneys from presenting any evidence of victims of trucking-related accidents not wearing seat belts. The bill also limits inclusion of some medical bills from jury awards.
“The war rages on, but I think we are winning some battles, particularly at the state level,” said Spear. “A key part of our strategy is to expose this profession and the adverse impact it is having on our industry, on the hardworking men and women in trucking, but also directly on the economy itself.”
An 80-page study by the American Transportation Research Institute about increases in nuclear verdicts was released earlier this year, detailing the logic among juries deciding these particular verdicts against the trucking industry. ATRI concluded, after researching 600 different big rig-involved crashes with verdicts of $10 million or more, that these nuclear verdicts have risen exponentially over the last 10 years.
According to the study, between 2010 and 2018, an average verdict in a trucking-related trial jumped from $2.3 million to $22.2 million.
“When I started practicing 26 years ago, it was a very different landscape than now,” said Mike Langford, a litigator at Scopelitis, Garving, Light, Hanson & Feary. “There are better plaintiff attorneys handling trucking cases now than were handling the cases 25 years ago, or even 15 years ago.”
The reason attorneys have boosted their abilities, though, is because trucking incidents have increased steeply, as have the amount of injuries and deaths which occur as a result.
Founder of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys, Michael Leizerman, noted an incident involving a 27-year-old victim who became quadriplegic following a trucking-related accident. The client required $20 million to cover his medical costs, which would be necessary throughout the course of his life.
“The dispute may be, is it $17 million or $22 million?” said Leizerman. “In that case, even the trucking attorneys are saying, ‘Yeah, let’s take care of this guy.’”
ATA also has often handpicked specific cases to cite in order to bring attention to particular instances in which victims of truck crashes receive large rewards–an effort to incite pushback against these lawsuits.
In a recent interview, Spear referenced a particular 2014 case involving a tractor-trailer and a pickup truck, in which the latter had crossed a Texas interstate median and collided with the trailer. A child in the pickup truck died upon impact, another was paralyzed and two others were injured. In court, the family of these passengers argued that the tractor-trailer driver was behaving recklessly in severe weather and that he should have pulled over. The jury ruled in their favor, and awarded the family $90 million.
Although court documents from this case showed that the trucking company, Werner Enterprises, had stayed quiet regarding its disregard for having any clear safety policies, Spear made it known he believed the driver was not at fault.
Werner is still working to appeal the verdict.
If tort reform continues being regarded as a high-priority issue, recovery amounts given to victims and victims’ families of low levels of trucking safety would fall. ATA has made it clear that it views saving money in these verdicts as being much more important than the safety of those on the road and the financial help that can be given to those who have become hurt as a result of low safety standards.