The trucking industry has experienced an increase in nuclear jury verdicts since January 2017. In fact, in the last year, we have seen the two largest jury verdicts ever awarded in the trucking industry. Large awards are typically attributable to a jury’s desire to send a message or punish carriers and drivers for specific acts. In other words, in trials that result in massive civil judgments, awards for punitive damages, if sought, far exceed awards for compensatory damages. As it turns out, the reason for this trend may be rather simple; with an increase in commercial vehicle accidents involving a distracted driving component, the transportation industry has seen an increase in nuclear verdicts.
There are three classifications of distracted driving: visual, physical, and cognitive. Visual distractions include mobile devices and texting, GPS devices or maps, and even scenic and external distractions. Mobile devices and texting are also types of physical distractions, based on the requirement that drivers must take their hands off of the wheel to operate them. Other physical distractions include smoking and reaching for something in a vehicle. Conversely, cognitive distractions take driver’s minds away from the road. Loud music, conversation, and stress or fatigue are examples of cognitive distractions. Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs combines all three classifications of distracted driving.
In April 2018, a Valparaiso, Indiana jury awarded a motorist $16.5 million for injuries sustained when a tractor-trailer rear-ended a passenger vehicle while it was stopped at a red light in the case of Binkowski v. Grand Island Express. At trial, the defense conceded the truck’s operator was solely responsible for the accident. In fact, it was determined that the truck driver was text messaging on his cellular phone, which, the driver testified, took his eyes and attention off the road. Despite testimony from the plaintiff’s employer that the plaintiff’s job performance, which included the operation of a forklift, had not been impacted by the accident, the jury jumped at the opportunity to punish the trucking company. Whether the trucking company failed to institute preventative policies or adequately train its drivers, its perceived recklessness and inattention struck a chord with the jury – actual, compensable injuries notwithstanding. Of the ultimate award in this case, $7 million was awarded in punitive damages.
In July 2018, a jury in Upshur County, Texas awarded $101 million to a man who was injured in a rear-end accident by a distracted driver operating a tractor-trailer. In Patterson v. FTSI, LLC. et al., the plaintiff sustained only soft-tissue injuries and eventually had back surgery, but the ultimate award was not based on the severity of the plaintiff’s injuries. Rather, $75 million of the verdict was in punitive damages. Over the course of the trial, it was discovered that the tractor-trailer driver was under the influence of marijuana and methamphetamine at the time of the accident. Though the operator’s actions themselves were reprehensible, the jury took exception to the actions, or inaction, of the operator’s employer, also a defendant in the case and a large hydraulic provider in the fracking industry. The operator’s employer was found to have fabricated the driver’s former drug test results and credited him for training he never completed. The employer had internal policies which, if enforced, would have removed the truck’s operator from the road prior to the accident. It seems this one procedural miscue drove the jury’s deliberation, but the underlying cause of the accident was distracted driving.
In November 2018, a second jury in Upshur County, Texas awarded $260 million to the family of a deceased motorist who was killed after colliding with the side of a tractor-trailer that was blocking all four lanes of a highway in the case of McPherson v. Jefferson Trucking. Much like the two cases addressed above, there were aggravating factors that contributed to the jury’s award. The tractor-trailer driver had been operating his vehicle for approximately 17 hours at the time of the accident, which violated the hours of service regulations. Therefore, fatigue was a likely factor in the accident. In addition, the decedent’s family was successful in showing that the driver had a history of reckless driving, likely leading to an increase in the award.
Nuclear verdicts are trending up. As noted, there seems to be a common thread between them. That is, there exists some act leading to distracted driving, whether visual, physical, or cognitive, and an element of preventability and accountability on behalf of the carriers and trucking companies. There is no dispute that distracted driving significantly increases the likelihood of catastrophic accidents. The recent nuclear verdicts in cases involving commercial vehicle accidents with a distracted driving component, make clear that juries will hold not just the driver accountable, but the motor carrier accountable as well for the safety of the public on the roadways.
For more information about this article, please contact Patrick Toohey at 410.230.1085 or firstname.lastname@example.org.