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Nuclear Verdicts Pose Threat to Trucking Companies

A new study found that nuclear verdicts against trucking companies are rapidly increasing and threatening the security of the trucking industry worldwide. 

A nuclear verdict is one where the verdict is over $10 million. The latest study shows plaintiff’s counsel’s are utilizing methods of fear and manipulation to get more money from trucking companies.

The study, “Roadblock: The Trucking Litigation Problem and How to Fix It,” authored by Prasad Sharma of the transportation law firm Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary, builds on the studies from June 2020 and November 2021.

The Chamber study focuses on post-pandemic data since the American Transportation Research Institute study focuses on pre-pandemic data. 

Upon reviewing 154 litigation verdicts that involved trucking companies, the study found the following:

  • From June 2020 to April 2023, a mean plaintiffs’ award combined with settlements of $27,507,334 and a median award of $759,875.
  • For plaintiffs’ verdicts, the mean award was $31,862,776, and the median was $314,217.
  • For settlements, the mean award was $10,608,219, and the median award was $210,000.
  • All are much bigger numbers than documented in the 2020 ATRI study, which focused on large verdicts and data from 2006 to 2020. It found, for example, mean and median awards of $3,162,571 and $1,750,000, respectively.

Shockingly, the trucking safety record has been improving while the number of fatal truck crashes has increased 17%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It’s important to note that the trucking safety record is made up of a few different factors, the complexity of the accidents, training and safety standards, and heavy vehicle crash rate.

“A puzzling counterpoint to these rising verdict trends is a recent examination of trucking safety statistics, which showed that the trucking industry has made meaningful safety improvements from 2000 to 2020,” the Chamber study notes. “Over that time, consumer demand for goods increased rapidly, resulting in a 47% uptick in large truck vehicle miles traveled (VMT). While the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks has remained steady, the fatal crashes per 100 million VMT decreased from 2.23 to 1.47 during those two decades—a drop of 34%.”

The study notes research from University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, which found “actions of drivers of passenger vehicles alone contribute to 70% of the fatal crashes with trucks.”

Also highlighted in the study is the tactics plaintiffs use against trucking companies. An example is inflated medical bills, inflated billing would increase the dollar amounts of verdicts.

The study also highlights “reptile” courtroom tactics by plaintiffs’ lawyers. It notes: “The great majority of trucking companies take immense pride in their continuous efforts to operate safely. But to instill fear in the jurors, plaintiffs’ attorneys will point to company acts or omissions—oftentimes instances where a policy was not followed—as violating the carrier’s professed commitment to safety. It often does not matter whether those particular acts or violations had a direct connection to the accident or who caused the accident. The point is to instill fear that the trucking company is jeopardizing the safety of the jurors and their community.”

And according to the Chamber of Commerce study, “some attorneys even go so far as to pay individuals to orchestrate the staging of accidents and then refer the fraudulent claimants to the attorney,” citing a federal indictment that alleges perpetrators admitted to staging 150 different accidents.

“It is not surprising that a litigation climate generally unfavorable for business will also be unfavorable for trucking,” the study says, noting that according to ATRI data, California topped the list of states for verdicts and settlements under $1 million while New York, Illinois, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana all made the top 10. In the Chamber paper’s review of truck accident settlements and verdicts from June 2020 to April 2023, Florida led the way regarding the number of truck accident verdicts and settlements, followed by California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Texas, and Georgia.

The order changes when looking at damages awards, but the same states occupy the top spots, according to the Chamber of Commerce study. Texas led with a mean award of $114,617,913 (median award of $4,500,000), followed by Florida with a mean award of $96,572,173 (median award of $1,263,124), California with a mean award of $13,509,410 (median award of $7,938,343), New Jersey with a mean award of $11,348,897 (median award of $20,000), Georgia with a mean award of $2,700,942 (median award of $1,151,742), and rounded out by Pennsylvania with a mean award of $2,675,990 (median award of $910,000).

The study outlines a few solutions that could help mediate this issue:

  • More medical transparency. Only accurate billing should be included and presented to juries.
  • Prohibiting inflammatory arguments if a defendant trucking firm stipulates responsibility for a driver’s negligence.
  • Create caps for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering.

“How much money is arbitrary, how much money is a valid dollar amount, and how much is just pulled out of the sky?” FTA President and CEO Alix Miller asked in an interview with FleetOwner, echoing the state-level exasperation.

“There are other consequences to nuclear verdicts and inflated settlements,” she added. “They drive up insurance rates, divert money away from increasing companies’ workforce, can delay purchasing new trucks and safety technologies. Ultimately, this affects everyone: the health of the economy, the supply chain, and cost to transport all of the goods we use.”

“The current trajectory is unsustainable,” the Chamber study concludes. “Many of the drivers of inflated verdicts are known. Likewise, a number of potential solutions have been identified. Policymakers, judges, law enforcement, and ethics bodies must now answer the call and restore reasonableness and fairness to the resolution of truck accident litigation claims.”

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