Changes to the trucking industry could be prompted by multi-million trucking crash lawsuits.
Large legal nuclear verdicts (settlements of $10 million and above) from juries in liability cases related to trucking accidents have increased. New research, available for download on American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI)’s website, provides evidence that the increase is both in the number as well as the size of the punitive damage component.
Although nationally fatal crashes involving large trucks were at their lowest point in 2009 – a U.S. total of 3,380 fatal large truck crashes with 179 registered in Florida – since then, they have steadily increased. In 2019 there were 4,689 fatal large truck crashes registered in the U.S. and 276 listed for Florida. (In the Federal Motor Carrier Administration crash statistics summary select “large trucks” under “vehicle type”, 2019 under “time period” and navigate to the tab “fatal crashes”.) That is a 38.73 percent increase nationally and a 54.19 percent increase in Florida state-wide when compared to 2009.
As this analysis points out, only about 5 percent of the fatal trucking accident claims go to trial. Therefore, the vast majority of these claims are settled. And compared to the total number of fatal crashes involving large trucks, maybe 5 to 10 of them become nuclear verdict cases.
The reality is that any injuries suffered as a direct or indirect result of an accident justify damages compensation. All the more so when people die or are permanently injured in an accident involving a large truck and there are dependents that need to be cared for.
A Brief History of Nuclear Verdicts
According to ATRI, between 1990-1994 the median dollar result from cases that went to trial was $190,000. Compared to 1985-1989, this was a 90 percent award increase.
Using CaseMetrix, a database of court verdicts and settlements that compiles information from 600 cases registered between 2006 and 2019, the first five years of gathered data showed 26 cases of over $1-million verdicts. Five times more verdicts, this time in the $20-million range, registered over the last five years (2015-2019).
A similar conclusion appears in The Wall Street Journal in an article that analyzes data from VerdictSearch, that reports more than a 300% increase in the frequency of $20 million-plus verdicts in 2019 compared to the annual average registered between 2001-2009.
It results that the proliferation of nuclear verdicts in trucking accidents has gained steam over the last decade or so.
Nuclear verdicts typically occur when the jury determines that the motor carriers were willfully or purposely denying any involvement or responsibility for the accident.
One of the largest awards – $280 million – was granted in 2016. The jury ordered the award against the driver and the trucking company after the driver fell asleep at the wheel and caused a crash that killed five people.
In another case, where the family of a teenage boy killed in an underride accident was awarded $42 million, documents from the trial showed that the trucking industry had been working against the utilization of side guards – which were designed to prevent smaller vehicles from sliding underneath an 18-wheeler – for a lengthy period.
One document showed the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association detailed information on side guard costs from major trailer manufacturers to potentially develop defense strategies regarding underride lawsuits.
Nuclear verdicts might eventually determine the commercial trucking industry to comprehend that allowing unsafe trucks to travel the roads comes at a high price and that they need to re-evaluate safety measures.
The Benefits of a Strong Safety Culture
Substantial jury verdicts protect the rights of truck accidents victims. They also send a message of change and of the need to prevent crashes in the trucking industry.
“Truck accidents shatter many lives. Collisions with commercial vehicles produce such horrific injuries and so many fatalities, that trucking companies need to make it a priority to implement preventive measures.”, says Sean M. Cleary, a Miami truck accident attorney.
One important issue is that safety features, warning procedures and devices aren’t necessarily a normal practice for every trucking company. Every safety feature costs money and having correct safety equipment may be the first area that suffers cutbacks.
Some motor carriers may reason that they can barely afford to spend money on gas, salaries and insurance. However, the value of having a solid safety culture throughout operations cannot be overstated.
However, there might be a silver lining available to motor carriers who are willing to concentrate on safety culture and the quality of their vehicle maintenance programs.
Some insurers will give carriers better rates if they install devices such as inward- and outward-facing cameras and speed governors because they’ve been proven to improve safety.
Preventive maintenance with steps such as pre- and post-trip walk-around vehicle inspections to check things like tire tread depth, window cracks and brake lights also reduce the likelihood of an accident and make it less likely for trucks to be stopped by state inspectors.
Developing a strong safety culture can also significantly improve the retention of qualified drivers who may be quitting their jobs in favor of safer shifts with other firms. This means motor carriers would spend less money on the recruitment and training of inexperienced drivers.
The trucking industry needs to leave no room for mistakes. They are, after all, certified professionals that have access to the appropriate means to prevent accidents in the first place.