Trucking Industry Increasingly Facing Verdicts in Excess of 10 Million Dollars
By virtue of their greater size and weight, accidents involving trucks have long had the potential to generate more damage than accidents involving cars. That is one reason why trucking accident litigation is a high stakes affair. There is, however, strong evidence that additional factors are involved that increase the exposure for trucking companies.
According to a 2020 study conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute (“ATRI”), juries have for more than a decade increasingly imposed enormous emotional distress and even punitive damages award on trucking companies. The ATRI study tracked 600 cases and shows that as recently as 2010 the number of verdicts exceeding $1 million numbered in the single digits. Since then that number has mushroomed to between 35 and 75 cases a year. Moreover, the number of enormous verdicts has ballooned such that, in 2018, the largest verdicts involving trucking accidents exceeded $20 million.
The reasons behind out-sized verdicts are complicated. The severity and the injuries and the identity of the victims of course play an important role. The extent of medical costs impacts the jury’s award. And unsurprisingly, wrongful death cases generate higher potential verdicts, and jury verdicts are higher when they involve the wrongful death of minors, or more than one person.
These factors are not sufficient to explain the growth in large verdicts. The size of verdicts involving trucking accidents has increased much more rapidly than the annual healthcare inflation rate. And verdicts against trucking companies have increased more rapidly than comparable verdicts involving auto accidents.
The Regulation of Trucking
Trucking cases are different than auto accident cases in part because of how trucks are regulated in the U.S. They are subject to a wide range of regulations that are not imposed of drivers of trucks. These include requirements that the driver have a valid commercial license, a clean driving history, that the driver not drive more than a certain number of hours, as well as requirements to maintain a logbook. When a wrongful death case involves allegations of these kind of violations, juries have tended impose verdicts in excess of $10 million and sometimes in excess of $100. For example, a 2016 Georgia case involved a semi-truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the centerline of a two-lane highway, resulting in a crash that killed five, including two young children. The jury returned a $280 million verdict.
And in a 2021 Florida case, a jury awarded a billion verdict against two trucking companies. The driver of the truck was on his cell phone, had driven over the legal limit of hours, and without a commercial driver’s license. He flipped his semi, which caused a massive traffic jam. An hour later a driver for a different trucking company was driving on cruise control and collided with a car, killing its 18-year-old driver. The jury’s verdict was instructive. It awarded $100 million in pain and suffering to the parents and apportioned 90 percent of that to the company that caused the accident that killed their son. But the $900 million punitive damages verdict was imposed on the company that caused the first accident. While this verdict is unlikely to be collected, certainly not in amounts equal to the verdict, it is clear that juries are increasingly willing to hold trucking companies morally responsible. And violations of trucking regulations play an outsized role in juries holding trucking companies responsible.
The Role of Expert Witnesses
Given the exposure involved in trucking accident cases, it is no surprise that expert witnesses play a crucial role. The ATRI study showed that when the defendant called an expert witness at trial, but the plaintiff did not, the mean verdict size in large cases declined by about $400,000. The data also showed that medical expert witnesses are especially important in cases involving allegations for spinal cord damage, as such cases generated a 19 percent higher mean verdict than crash-related cases that do not involve spinal cord cases.
The ATRI study showed that a defense verdict was reached about a quarter of the time. The most effective defense involved challenging the line of causation between the defendant and the injury. For example, a defense verdict was reached when the plaintiff alleged that the driver was using their cell phone at the time of the accident and the defense was able to show that was not likely the case.
Given the stakes involved it is especially important for defendants to adopt a comprehensive approach to defending serious trucking accident cases. And that involves retaining expert witnesses when the defense strategies are being formulated.
LITILI stands ready to provide a range of causation, medical, and standard of care experts for trucking accident cases.