August of 2022, a Florida jury handed down a billion-dollar verdict against two trucking companies. According to press reports, the crash occurred in early September 2017, taking the life of Connor Dzion, a young man who had just begun classes as a freshman at the University of North Florida. This is an extreme example of what is known in the transportation industry as a nuclear verdict—jury awards that surpass $10 million.
The average verdict size for a lawsuit above $1 million involving a truck crash has increased nearly 1,000% from 2010 to 2018, rising from $2.3 million to $22.3 million, according to a study conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute. Such skyrocketing awards are driving up insurance rates for trucking companies as costs to insure them rise and carriers leave the market. To cut costs, large operators are scaling back on excess insurance, putting them at greater risk should they be involved in an accident.
The National Safety Council recently released a data analysis which found that just over 5,000 large trucks were involved in fatal crashes in 2019, a 43% increase from 2010. And the number of injuries associated with truck crashes rose 7% during that same period to 160,000, with the majority of the injuries occurring to the occupants of other vehicles. It has gotten to the point where many trucking companies are finding themselves on the receiving end of large jury verdicts that often include high punitive damages. In some cases, these verdicts have even put trucking companies out of business, as they lack the necessary assets to pay the judgments.
Nuclear verdicts are on the rise across the trucking industry
One study found that there has been a tenfold rise in nuclear verdicts, with over 300 being handed down. Nowadays, a truck accident lawsuit involves more than just the incident itself. In addition to going after the driver, plaintiffs attempt to put the trucking company and its entire business under intense scrutiny.
Take steps to avoid the potential for nuclear verdicts
There are things that trucking companies can do to reduce the likelihood of a nuclear verdict. Here are some proactive steps to take:
- Have strict requirements in place when going through the process of hiring a driver. Look for a clean driving record, free of prior violations or any actions that create a red flag.
- Install a remote monitoring program to stay on top of your current drivers and their behaviors on the road. Do these reviews on a quarterly basis to protect your company and to notify you of any red flags.
- Maintain ongoing drivers’ training that includes reminders on how to drive during poor road and weather conditions.
- Partner with a service that continuously monitors your MVRs, eliminating the need for you to pull them and monitor them yourself. Things can happen between a company’s quarterly pulls that the employer may not be aware of that can be used against them in a lawsuit and viewed as negligence. Services to keep you informed include the following:
- Receive “as they occur” alerts for all driving violations, such as DWIs, speeding, illegal maneuvers, and more.
- Fleet carriers can also receive alerts for nondriving offenses; license status changes due to suspensions, revocations, and expirations; and medical certificate downgrades.
Though these steps don’t guarantee you will avoid a nuclear verdict, they will at least ensure that your drivers and your company are doing everything they can to promote safety on the road.