$1 Billion Verdict Builds on Nuclear Trend in Trucking Accident Cases

A Florida state jury recently awarded a $1 billion verdict to the family of a victim of a trucking accident.  Dzion v. AJD Business Services Inc. et al., 2018-CA-000148 (Nassau Cty Fla. 2021).  This is the latest in a trend of “nuclear verdicts” in trucking accident cases over the last decade or more. 

The average trucking verdict in the Southeastern United States in 2019 was $17.5M, according to CaseMetrix. From 2010-2014, the average was only $2-3M.  According to TopVerdict, there were 19 trucking accident cases in 2018 with verdicts over $10 million.1  Three were over $100 million, and the largest, McPherson v. Jefferson Trucking, LLC, was $247 million.2 It was the largest verdict of any kind in the State of Texas that year.  The verdict was awarded for the death of a single plaintiff.  The following year, there was a $280 million verdict: to that point, purportedly the largest ever in a trucking accident.  The jury deliberated only 45 minutes before returning the enormous award.3

These large verdicts are widely attributed to a trial technique known as “reptile theory,” whereby plaintiff’s counsel appeals to the more primitive “reptilian” part of the brain triggered by danger and invoking survival instincts.  The plaintiff establishes the standards for safe operations, then shows how the defendant violated those standards and put the plaintiff in danger.  The goal is for the juror to feel that they, or the community, are put in danger by the defendant’s actions, and to trigger an instinctive safety response in the juror rather than relying purely on reason or logic.  Plaintiffs using a “reptile theory” tactic in motor vehicle accident cases don’t just litigate the facts of a particular accident but put on trial the entire safety culture and safety operations of the motor carrier.  This element is necessary to make a juror feel that the defendant’s actions make the community unsafe, and that it could happen again if not prevented. 

In the recent $1 billion verdict, there was only one decedent, but there were two relevant crashes: one that blocked the highway and another in which the decedent’s vehicle was struck.  AJD Business Services, Inc.’s diver caused the first crash.  It’s driver, who did not have an active commercial driver license and was driving over the hours of service limit, got into a crash on I-95 when he was distracted by his cell phone.  The driver had several previous violations, including running weigh stations, logbook violations, rear-end crashes, distracted driving, following too closely, and a speeding violation.  The accident blocked the I-95, stopping traffic. 

The driver of the truck that caused the second collision -  driving for Kahkashan Carrier, Inc. - had been driving for 25 hours from Canada to Florida when, while operating under cruise control, he apparently didn’t see the cars that were stopped and did not apply the brakes until one second before hitting the stopped traffic, resulting in the death of 18-year old Connor Dzion and injuries to many others.   The jury returned a verdict of $1 billion, of which $900 million was punitive damages, all of which were against AJD Business Services, Inc., the carrier involved in the initial accident, not the carrier that struck Mr. Dzion. 

Because a theory of liability in these cases involves negligent hiring, it is not just motor carrier, but anyone that hires motor carriers, that is exposed to the possibilities of these large verdicts. Failure to properly vet a carrier can have substantial consequences.  For example, the broker was held partially responsible in Espinoza v. J.B. Hunt Transport Inc. et. al.,4 for the actions of the driver it hired, who was inebriated when he struck a person on the shoulder of the interstate assisting a friend with a disabled vehicle, leaving the plaintiff confined to a wheelchair.  The broker was found responsible because it accepted the representations of the driver, who was a sole proprietor, that he did not have convictions for DUI or reckless driving, without conducting its own background check.  In fact, the driver “had a conviction for DUI while driving a tractor-trailer, two reckless driving violations, a speeding citation for driving a commercial vehicle in a construction zone and had been dismissed from prior employment with a trucking company for failing a drug and alcohol test.

It is not easy to predict which cases will result in large verdicts.  For example, in Blake v. Ali; Werner Enterprises, a student driver’s training driver was asleep in the sleeper birth in icy conditions when the truck struck a pickup, in which a mother’s 7-year-old son was killed, 12-year-old daughter was left in a “minimally conscious vegetative state,” in addition to severe injuries to another son and the mother led to an $80M verdict.5  Notably, it was the family’s pickup that lost control in the ice and crossed the median of the road into oncoming traffic.  The tractor-trailer was driving 25 MPH, below the posted speed limit, but more than the “crawl” which plaintiffs claim was required by safety regulations.  The jury found the driver of the pickup that lost control only 16% at fault for the accident. 

In Plascencia and Trujillo on Behalf of Plascencia, Estate of Plascencia, v. Deese; Flat Creek Transportation, a driver was killed after swerving to avoid an oncoming vehicle, losing control and crashing into a tractor-trailer that was illegally parked on the shoulder of the road.  The jury found the trucking company of the parked truck 40% responsible for the death, and liable for $12M in damages.6 

In Lozano Jr. v. JNM Express L.L.C.7 the plaintiff was not killed, but the driver fell asleep at the wheel, and claimed that his employer instructed him to drive in violation of the hours of service requirements, and when the driver protested, the employer told him to alter his logbook. $75M of the $80M verdict in that case was for punitive damages and included punitive damages against a broker.  

It is hard to draw clear conclusions from these cases.  Clearly, there were some instances where safety violations by the carrier were deemed so egregious that they were punished for their wrongdoing.  Even brokers were found to be responsible when they did not take steps to screen for dangerous drivers.  However, in other cases with large verdicts, the facts weren’t so clear, or there was a mix of responsibility.  Any carrier or company that hires carriers can be held responsible, and in the wake of reptile theory tactics, nuclear verdicts are clearly on the rise.

1 Top 100 Truck Accident Verdicts in the United States in 2018, https://topverdict.com/lists/2018/united-states/top-100-truck-accident-verdicts.
2 No. 16-00247, 2018 WL 7017862, (Tex. Dist. Nov. 16, 2018).
3 Samuel Barradas, Jury Orders $280 Million Payment, Largest Ever Verdict Against Trucking Company,  Truckers Report, https://www.thetruckersreport.com/jury-orders-280-million-payment-largest-ever-verdict-trucking-company/.
4 36 Pa. J.V.R.A. 2:C2, 1000 WL 285757 (Pa.Com.Pl. June Term 2015)
5 JVR No. 1905200016, 2018 WL 8335568 (Tex.Dist. May 21, 2018).
6 JVR No. 1906180044, 2019 WL 2511833 (Cal.Super., March 05, 2019). 
7 2019 WL 2369364 (D. Tex., Hidalgo County May 7, 2019).

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