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$75 million jury award for driver “meant to send message”

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.”

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John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.

9 Comments

  1. Another way the driver could have handled this was tell them he would not run it and let them fire him, then go after the company. I don’t think the driver should be rewarded for bad judgement. He should be in jail.
    This also tells drivers, go ahead and drive illegal if the company tells you to so you can sue them if anything happens.

    1. Agreed 100%. That’s our court system. Keep greasing the pockets of these so called trucking expert attorneys. This truly was a ridiculous award. Drivers have a HUGE rule book. He , as an adult, CHOSE to violate the rules. This is stupid.

      1. I agree but its about time someone stands up to these companies and there forced dispatch , with those computers in trucks, your going to get caught sooner or later.

  2. The jury was right in their verdict just a bit over the top in the award. its been known that companies and drivers “cooked the books” for years. I doubt the driver would see much, if any, compensation outside of legal fees and some hush money to go away. Hopefully no one was seriously injured.!!

  3. So if I tell someone to rob a bank and that person does it, get’s injured, how am I at fault??? Seriously, everyone is responsible to follow the law. In this case, he should have complied to Federal regulations, which overrule the company instructions. If they fired him for that reason than sue them for that. But in this case, I am pretty sure the justice was subjective to the cause.

    1. Is not that easy to sue any company. It takes big pockets to even have a lawyer to look into your case even if you have probable cause. Basically is the same as suing a hospital; they have top law firms defending them even if they are at fault. Defense is turning things around to make the victim guilty of his or her actions. Justice is what you can afford and hope for a positive outcome.

  4. Will agree with Jeromy Hodges on this, the driver shouldn’t be given anything. The company should be slapped with all the fines and punitive damages for others involved, the FMCSA should then shut them down along with more fines for 49 CFR § 390.6 – Coercion Prohibited. Just because the company violated this doesn’t make the driver have a “financial reward”. Hopefully this will be overturned on appeal.

  5. When hiring drivers you must stress that they are the captain of the ship when they leave the port. That means the driver is responsible for the safety of the run. If you cannot do the run safely refuse the run, let the owner do it. If you feel sick, tired let your employer know. If the employer insists then you are working for the wrong employer. I think the judge was wrong.

  6. The driver just could have refused to do the run it’s really that simple. If the company fires him for refusing to break the law then he could get unemployment comp or something else from taking legal action against the employer.. think about the other people involved in this accident the driver was in the wrong for taking the load period.

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