My biggest cases monetarily have been trucking crashes. Fully loaded 18 wheelers weigh around 80,000 lbs. compared to your 3,500 lbs. car.
In a recent article called “Navigating Through the Era of Reptile Theory” Edwin S. Norris, J.D., Manager of Commercial Liability for Protective Insurance, worries “that jury verdict awards against transportation companies are on the rise nationwide.” Interestingly, he gives a real case as an example: “In May 2018, a Harris County, Texas jury awarded $89.7 million to a mother who lost a child and whose other child was seriously injured despite the undisputed facts that the truck driver was driving below the speed limit, did not lose control and that the claimant vehicle crossed the center line.”
Given these hand-picked facts, he may seem justified in his outrage. But, as Paul Harvey used to say, there is the “rest of the story.” Werner Enterprises, with over $2 billion in annual gross revenue was using a student truck driver that night. Each year they hire approximately 8,000 new drivers, and half have no prior truck driving experience and reports their annual driver turnover rate is over 100%! Ali was a 24-year-old student driver, with about 55 hours of driving experience, and no prior experience driving in winter weather. Ali was still in the first phase of Werner’s four- phase driver-training program and had not completed Werner’s winter-weather driving training module.
Ali’s trainer, Jeffrey Ackerman, had been asleep in the sleeper berth of the truck for five hours when the accident occurred. Ackerman and Ali knew that Ali would be driving into winter weather when they left Dallas that morning because they had seen a National Weather Service Winter Storm Warning predicting freezing rain and extremely hazardous road conditions to develop along I-20 in West Texas that afternoon. Ali and Ackerman could have avoided the winter storm altogether by taking the alternative route along I-40, a shorter route to their destination, yet Ackerman left Ali to drive through the winter storm unsupervised, even telling Ali, “hopefully we can make it through before it gets too bad.”
The evidence in the six-week trial showed the collision occurred on I-20 in Texas during freezing rain and black ice conditions. Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) manuals instruct 18-wheeler drivers to slow to a crawl and get off the road during icy conditions. Instead, the driver averaged in excess of 60 mph for the 52 miles he was driving in icy conditions prior to the crash, and was still traveling over 50 mph seconds prior to the collision. A pickup truck driven by a family friend of plaintiff Jennifer Blake went out of control on black ice on Interstate 20, traveling into and through a grassy median, spinning out of control and ending up directly in the path of the Werner tractor. It was undisputed that had he complied with the CDL manual the crash would not have occurred.
Due to this horrific crash, the Blake Family’s lives would never be the same. Jennifer Blake sustained a traumatic brain injury and severe lacerations in the crash. Nathan sustained a traumatic brain injury, a collapsed lung and several broken bones. Twelve-year-old Brianna Blake sustained multiple injuries, including a catastrophic brain injury that has rendered her a quadriplegic who will require 24-hour medical care for the rest of her life. And seven-year-old Zackery Blake, who sustained a catastrophic head injury and lacerated organs in the crash, died after struggling for his life for three days before finally succumbing to his injuries.
The icy road conditions in the area that day caused hundreds of other crashes. Yet Werner’s witnesses testified that Werner did not allow its student driver, to have access to basic safety equipment, such as an outside temperature gauge or the CB radio, either of which would have alerted him to the dangerous road conditions at the time. The driver and the rest of the Werner witnesses all denied that any ice existed on the roadway, despite testimony to the contrary from 14 independent witnesses and a National Weather Service warning indicating that freezing rain had developed in the area! According to court documents, at 4:26 a.m. the day of the collision, a full 12 hours prior to the collision, the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning stating that freezing rain would develop along I-20 in a large area in west Texas. Despite this, Werner directed the student driver to take the I-20 route through the icy conditions rather than a safer alternative route. It was Werner’s negligence in the years, months and hours before the pick-up entered the median that was the primary cause of the injuries the Blake’s sustained, according to Plaintiffs.
At 2:50 p.m., one hour and 40 minutes prior to the collision, the National Weather Service issued an updated Winter Storm Warning stating the freezing rain had developed. Yet Werner never communicated this update to its student driver, allowing the student driver to average over 60 mph while driving unsupervised through the icy conditions because he was on a Just-In-Time (JIT) load, requiring delivery to California by the next day. A JIT delivery is one with an expedited delivery deadline for which Werner expects its drivers to provide 100% on-time delivery.
Mr. Peel and his staff are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. The environment was inviting and not intimidating in the least. They make you feel like they truly care about you and your case. Mr. Peel answered any questions I had without making me feel like a burden or a dummy. I would definitely recommend him for your personal injury law needs.
Observers reported that the courtroom was stunned to hear Werner’s executives and experts testify that they were ‘happy’ with [the driver]’s choices, that they made ‘perfect’ decisions, and Werner has learned no safety lessons and would make no changes to its operations as a result of this crash.
Mr. Norris concludes his article with some advice to trucking firms:
- Have a strong safety policy that is uniformly enforced.
- Ensure that driver qualification files, hours of service logs, pre-trip inspections, and maintenance records are compliant with federal regulations and overall standards of care need to be complete.
- Companies should require drivers to regularly update their safe-driving training.
- Collision-mitigation systems, lane-departure warning and correction systems, driver fatigue-sensing systems, adaptive cruise control, and other avoidance systems may reduce the number and severity of accidents.
- Inward and outward facing dash cam systems and GPS systems can equip companies with accurate information about unsafe driving behaviors. Companies that review and analyze video and data from their drivers are better positioned to address unsafe driving practices
He concludes, “The more companies can demonstrate that they are committed and take a proactive approach to safety, the better they will be able to protect themselves and successfully navigate through what has become an increasingly adverse litigation landscape.”
I would add, the more companies can actually BE committed and take a proactive approach to safety, the better they will be able to avoid accidents that kill and maim in the first place!
Mr. Peel seeks justice for those injured in truck, motorcycle, and car crashes. He often addresses churches, clubs and groups without charge. Mr. Peel may be reached through PeelLawFirm.com wherein other articles may be accessed.
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