The trucking industry has experienced a continuous rise in “nuclear verdicts” since 2011. The American Transportation Research Institute (“ATRI”) defines a “nuclear verdict” as a verdict in excess of $10 million dollars.
In 2011, a $40 million dollar verdict was awarded to victims of a trucking accident in Georgia, where a semi-truck driver failed to stop, striking a passenger vehicle, killing two people and severely injuring a third. In 2012, a $281.6 million dollar verdict was initially handed down (reduced to $105.2 million), in a case where a drive shaft off a commercial truck went through the windshield of a passenger vehicle, killing the driver. The Court determined that the semi-truck driver was not negligent, but that the company was.
In 2014, a $90 million dollar verdict was awarded in Texas, where a semi-truck was driving under the speed limit in inclement weather conditions, and a passenger vehicle traveling in the opposite direction lost control and veered into the truck’s path. The trucking company denied all fault, arguing that the cause of the accident was the pickup truck that had lost control, nonetheless, the jury found the trucking company liable for the crash. The collision resulted in the death of a 7-year-old, and a paralyzed 12-year-old. In 2016, a semi-truck driver in Georgia fell asleep at the wheel, crossed over the centerline of a two-lane highway, causing a crash that killed five individuals including two young children, resulting in a $280 million verdict.
The 2021 Landmark $1 Billion Dollar Verdict
In 2021, a Florida jury awarded a landmark $1 billion dollar verdict in a wrongful death trucking case. The jury placed blame on two trucking companies, Kahkashan Transportation Inc. (“Kahkashan”) and AJD Business Services Inc. (“AJD”), for the death of the 18-year-old decedent, and awarded $100 million to the parents for the decedent’s pain and suffering, and $900 million in punitive damages for negligent hiring and retention of the AJD semi-truck driver.
The driver for AJD, was on his cell phone, driving over the legal limit of hours, and without a Commercial Driver’s License, when he caused an accident, flipping his semi-truck, and creating a massive back up on the interstate. An hour later a driver for Kahkashan was traveling the speed limit on cruise control, and collided into the line of stopped traffic killing the decedent. Further, his truck’s data recorder showed he did not attempt to break until one second before the impact.
The $100 million dollar verdict to the parents was split by the jury, 90% against Kahkashan and its driver, and 10% against AJD and its driver. The $900 million in punitive damages verdict was solely awarded against AJD. However, AJD is no longer in existence, and had not participated in the court proceedings for the previous 2 years. Additionally, AJD’s insurance was canceled in 2019.
Even if no money is collected from AJD, this case still has a great deal of impact on the trucking industry. It shows that juries believe these high awards are acceptable, and warranted in certain cases. Further, verdicts like this continue to tarnish the public image of trucking companies, and their safety procedures and policies. Nuclear verdicts like the ones mentioned above, have resulted in skyrocketing insurance premiums, which in some instances have put trucking companies out of business. Additionally, these nuclear verdicts motivate Plaintiff’s lawyers to take on trucking cases, and seek punitive damages against trucking companies.
What Factors Impact the Size of Jury Awarded Verdicts in Trucking Cases?
The ATRI analyzed data obtained from 600 cases to determine the variables that impacted verdicts in the trucking industry. See Dan Murray, “Understanding the Impact of Nuclear Verdicts on the Trucking Industry,” American Transportation Research Institute. Some of the variables include unfortunate outcomes that are outside of a trucking company’s control. For example, research showed that an increase in overall verdict amounts was witnessed in cases involving the death of a minor, spinal injuries, and roll-over accidents.
However, the research also shows that there are numerous factors which increase the value of verdicts that are within a trucking company’s control, either in the way company is run, or the manner in which the case is litigated.
Cases involving the following factors yielded verdicts in favor of the Plaintiff 100% of the time: a semi-truck driver being over hours of service or having logbook violations, lacking a clean driving history, driving under the influence of controlled substances, a semi-truck fleeing the scene of a crash, and/or an accident being caused by a driver’s health-related issues. In cases that involved cell phone use, only one case yielded a defense verdict, which was the result of Plaintiff being unable prove that the phone was actually in use at the time of the crash.
The ATRI’s research showed that successful implementation of post-crash and pre-trial tasks such as case evaluation, mediation, and pre-trial preparation played a critical role in successful litigation results.
During the stages of an accident investigation, and case evaluation, it is critical that attorneys and insurance professionals work together to determine the verifiable facts, and assess the potential problems in the case. A thorough examination must be conducted as it relates to factors that may have contributed to the incident.
Next, assessing the reasonableness of an early settlement, based on the facts known at the time, generally helps promote a more reasonable settlement. Finally, pre-trial preparation is paramount. Having an attorney who is experienced, and familiar with the trucking industry will ensure that the necessary actions are being taken to combat arguments Plaintiff attorneys will raise, especially reptilian theory arguments, which lead to nuclear verdicts in trucking cases.
Despite Nuclear Verdicts Being on the Rise, Great Outcomes in Trucking Cases are Obtainable
In 2021 Baker Sterchi member, James R. Jarrow, secured a defense verdict in a week-long wrongful death trucking case that was tried in Missouri state court. Plaintiff alleged that the driver could have avoided the interstate accident, which resulted in the death of her husband. After significant pre-trial motion practice, and multiple experts testifying on both sides, the Plaintiff asked the jury for $3 million dollars in damages. But the jury agreed with the defense’s position, and rendered a verdict in favor of the trucking company.
Additionally, Baker Sterchi member, Joseph Swift also received a favorable outcome in 2021 in a challenging jury tried trucking case where liability was admitted, and the case was tried solely on the extent of damages. This case was initially filed in Cook County, Illinois state court, but was successfully removed to the federal District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. The truck’s dash camera (capturing both inward and outward views) showed 9 seconds of driver inattention, and a violent crash. Plaintiff sought to recover over $1.65 million in general and special damages. However, the jury awarded $145,000 in overall damages for cervical and lumbar surgeries, a very favorable verdict given the circumstances of the case.
Despite the upward trend of nuclear verdicts in the trucking industry, 2021 has proven that when cases are properly investigated, prepared, and tried, trucking companies can still obtain favorable jury verdicts.