A multimillion-dollar award in punitive damages against the owners of a small south Texas trucking operation was intended as a warning to the industry about overworking drivers, the defendant’s lawyer told FreightWaves.
The $75 million punitive award against Jorge Marin and his wife as owners of three McAllen, Texas trucking companies was in addition to $5 million in compensatory damages in favor of Lauro Lozano, who had been one of Marin’s drivers, in a May 7 order filed in Hidalgo County, Texas district court.
Lozano’s lawsuit, filed in 2017, stemmed from allegations that in 2015, Marin had pressured him to alter his logbook so that he could take on an 1,800-mile reefer haul from Texas to Maryland despite hitting federal hours-of-service (HOS) limits. Lozano fell asleep at the wheel early in the morning on the trip while travelling in Alabama, rear-ending another truck and suffering serious injuries.
“This was a case where the plaintiff’s lawyer asked the jury to send out a message to the community and to the trucking industry that certain types of behavior would not be tolerated – overworking drivers and making them drive beyond legal limits,” Hector Torres, who represented the owners, told FreightWaves. “We of course disagree that my clients engaged in that kind of conduct, but the jury chose to believe otherwise, and a large amount in damages resulted.”
Lozano’s lawyer did not immediately return a call for comment on Torres’ assessment of the case. According to court documents, Lozano and his lawyer argued that the company he worked for, JNM Express, breached duties owed to Lozano and the general public, including using ordinary care in providing a safe workplace and in supervising an employee’s activities.
The lawsuit pointed out that the defendants did not carry workers’ compensation insurance, and that they created JNM Express and two other companies, Anca Transport and Omega Freight Logistics, as a way to shield their personal assets “in a scheme to defraud creditors, including any employees injured or killed on the job.” Operating through several entities was also “part of a scheme to defraud regulators by evading safety regulations,” such as HOS, the lawsuit contended.
Torres acknowledged that his clients’ choosing to not carry workers’ compensation insurance – which he said was voluntary in Texas – ended up being a major detriment for them. “If you opt out, then you lose certain common law defenses that you would otherwise have if you get sued by an employee,” he said. “In this case, we couldn’t argue that the accident was partially the driver’s fault. He fell asleep and refused to pull over. And he blamed the owners for pressuring him. But we didn’t think there was evidence of that at all.”
Torres said the judge has yet to sign off on the judgement, which he said will likely be lowered due to legal limits on jury awards. His clients will then have 30 days to appeal, for which he believes they have a good case. “I think there were problems during the trial with some of the rulings made by the judge on matters of evidence – what should have been admitted in the trial and what should have been excluded.”
The owners’ other option is to seek bankruptcy protection, Torres said, or come to a settlement that can actually be worked out. As a small company with less than 20 trucks, “my clients don’t have the insurance to cover this award, and are never going to be able to pay even a fraction of this verdict. These numbers are astronomical.”