Increased traffic leads to an increase in accidents, which consequently leads to an increase in litigation. Every year, more and more commercial transportation entities are pulled into litigation and the risks and responsibilities that go with it.
A troubling trend is the increase in verdict/settlement amounts. According to 2020 data from the American Transportation Research Institute, from 2010 to 2018, the average verdict over $1 million for truck crashes jumped from $2.3 million to $22.3 million, a nearly 1,000% increase. The 2020 report also saw a dramatic uptick in cases, particularly those over $1 million. Increased risk and higher settlement/verdict values are associated with motor carriers where plaintiffs attack certain factors such as HOS/logbook violations, driver history, controlled substance, leaving the scene of the crash, health related issues, sleep/fatigue, cell phone use, rear end collisions, work zone/construction, and unfavorable hiring practices.
Another troubling trend on the rise and impacting transportation clients is that plaintiff attorneys have begun casting a wider net in their negligence lawsuits. Instead of just suing the drivers and the vehicle owners, plaintiff attorneys are bringing in as many potentially responsible parties into the suit, no matter how small a role they may have played in the accident. As a result, we are seeing more and more relatively minor players. This is a blatant attempt by plaintiff attorneys to increase the size of the pool of potential money to collect from, and unfortunately, there is very little that entities can do to prevent this from happening without first incurring substantial litigation costs. This trend is on the rise because at present there are very few laws that impose a downside on plaintiffs for dragging every potential minor party into accident lawsuits.
Commercial transportation defendants are not without recourse. Several states have acknowledged and responded to these negative litigation trends. For example, the Texas Senate passed House Bill 19 – a comprehensive reform bill to reduce frivolous and abusive lawsuits targeting commercial motor vehicles. The bill provides significant procedural changes to trucking-related lawsuits. In short, it allows motor carriers to request a two-part trial under certain circumstances where a jury must first determine liability against the driver and next, against the motor carrier employer. Varying reforms have been enacted in other states such as Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, and West Virginia.
Further, the best offense for commercial transportation defendants is a good defense. Motor carriers utilizing best practices will always have a leg up in litigation: proper safety management; driver hiring/training; assistance to drivers for compliance obligations; use of safety/tracking technology; properly vetting all drivers; proper fleet maintenance; etc. These and other best practices increase the probability of avoiding accidents in the first place. As accidents will undoubtedly continue to occur, the best practices are also essential to combating plaintiffs’ claims and the above recent trends in litigation.
For instance, as noted above, plaintiffs will attack certain factors to increase the probability of a higher settlement/verdict against a motor carrier. However, with the utilization of best practices, and, importantly, the proper documentation of the use of those best practices, a motor carrier defendant sets itself up for success against any allegations plaintiffs may bring in addition to driver negligence.
Increased litigation and risk to commercial transportation entities will continue to occur. These issues remain notwithstanding some states enacting laws to combat the problem. Further, the utilization of best practices and the proper documentation of same will not negate liability exposure but can certainly prepare commercial carriers to put on an aggressive defense when the claims are presented.
The attorneys at Weber Gallagher are experienced litigators in all commercial transportation matters and aggressively defend its clients against these litigation trends.