No motor carrier anticipates a deadly accident will occur on its watch, but that tragic reality befalls many every year. Even more trouble awaits trucking companies caught off guard in the courtroom, leaving them on the hook for potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
Many trucking companies fall victim at trial to the “reptile theory,” a tactic plaintiffs’ attorneys use to exploit a jury’s strong opinions on safety and the emotional toll of accidents by depicting carriers in a bad light, inaccurately portraying their performance, character and values.
In a time when the trucking industry seems to be the No. 1 target of billboard attorneys, knowing what to expect — and say — can save you from a whirlwind of trouble at trial. Avoiding courtroom blunders and foot-in-mouth statements that may worsen the consequences of such situations is why insurance providers and safety experts urge carriers to participate in mock trials.
Justified or not, nuclear verdicts — jury awards typically exceeding $10 million — have dramatically increased in value in the past two decades. Settlements often surpass the $10 million definition, and motor carriers today live in dread of an eight-to nine-figure penalty preceding the hammering of the gavel.
A trucking company in Florida may have been slapped with the largest nuclear verdict on record, as a jury delivered a $1 billion verdict this week. The case involves a 2017 crash that killed University of North Florida freshman Connor Dzion.
The billion-dollar verdict included $100 million to be paid to Dzion’s parents — 90% by Canada-based Kahkashan Carriers and its driver and 10% by Staten Island, New York-based carrier AJD Business Services and its driver. AJD was hit with $900 million in punitive damages, FreightWaves reported.
What likely led to the verdict’s billion-dollar valuation was AJD’s courtroom performance — or lack thereof. It’s reported that AJD was absent from all recent proceedings. In fact, a court default was entered against it on June 28, alleging that AJD had failed to participate in the proceedings of the case since July 2019. Moreover, both Kahkashan and AJD’s DOT numbers are listed as inactive.
This case is highly unusual given its extreme verdict and the no-show by AJD, but it presents the trucking industry with a textbook example of what not to do at trial. And while the $900 million is unlikely to be collected in full, this case may set precedents as to what level of compensation is acceptable, and the indefensible actions of the motor carriers involved may further tarnish the public’s opinion of the industry.
“These verdicts will continue to grow; once the precedent has been set, they’re going to try to raise it on the next verdict,” said Brian Runnels, Reliance Partners’ vice president of safety. “We as an industry have to do a much better job of understanding the ‘reptile theory’.
Runnels strongly suggests motor carriers participate in mock trials, many of which are carried out by insurance companies and state and national associations.
The Indiana Motor Truck Association (IMTA) conducted a mock trial workshop last month, which engaged motor carriers in the post-accident investigation process following a real catastrophic accident claim.
Events like these aim to help motor carriers prepare for trucking accident lawsuits and understand how jurors respond at trial. Participants underwent interrogatories by attorneys, provided deposition testimonies and gave witness testimonies on the stand.
Runnels previously participated in one of IMTA’s mock trials in partnership with a large trucking defense firm. The setup involved a condensed version of an actual case that happened a few years ago, as well as all the individuals you’d find in a real courtroom; the attorneys were real, Runnels said, but the witnesses were actors. The condensed case lasted around six hours.
“You get a good sense of the information that’s going to be put in front of you,” Runnels said. Playing the foreman of the jury in this particular case, Runnels said it was frustrating to see some of the antics used to fluster the trucking company.
“If you ever have to go to a trial, you get a really good understanding of some of the things that are said and some of the tactics that may be used against you.”
The case presented opening arguments, witness statements, as well as closing arguments and jury deliberation.
Whether it’s a driver being put on the stand or an associate being prepared for a counterargument, Runnels said carriers need to take the advice of their attorneys during trial preparation.
“You have to be able to have good [responses] and make people understand that you’re not the ‘big, bad bullies on the road,” he said. He alluded to the industry’s image problem, and agreed that it’s hard for trucking companies to prevail in the courtroom.
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