(Statement by Schnitzer Southeast added).
What is believed to be the biggest jury verdict ever against a trucking company was handed down last week by a Georgia state court.
According to various news reports, the jury in Columbus, Georgia awarded a $280 million verdict against Schnitzer Southeast and Schnitzer Steel (NASDAQ: SCHN). The award was announced after a mere 45 minutes of deliberation, according to a news article about the verdict published by the Daily Report, a publication of American Lawyer Media.
The facts of the wreck are gruesome – a grandmother and her twin sister, her grown daughter and that woman’s two children were all killed in July 2016 when a Schnitzer truck hit their car head-on. Although the case was filed in Georgia (where Schnitzer Southeast is located), the collision occurred in Russell County in east Alabama on U.S. Highway 80.
A $101 million award handed down last year in Texas against FTS International had been assumed to be the biggest verdict ever awarded against a trucking company. The Georgia verdict is more than 275 percent the size of the Texas award.
The verdict was the largest award ever handed down in Muscogee County, according to news reports.
The award was handed down, according to the Daily Report article, in a lawsuit filed by the family of one of the victims, Judy Madere, the grandmother of the two young children killed in the accident. There is a second case pending as a result of the accident, this one for Trudy Herbert, who is Judy Madere’s twin. Other cases for the two children and their mother were settled out of court, according to the news reports.
Schnitzer Southeast is a scrap metal company and is a subsidiary of Schnitzer Steel, a publicly traded steel manufacturing and recycling company. Both companies were found liable, though news reports said attorneys had argued Schnitzer Steel was not liable. But the report on the trial from the Daily Report said the two companies were linked so closely that the driver of the truck, Kenneth Cathey, had applied for a job at Schnitzer Steel that led him to drive for Schnitzer Southeast.
“The family’s lawyers presented evidence to show braking skid marks for the SUV but none for the truck,” according to the Daily Report. “The Madere attorneys alleged the driver was fatigued, having only slept less than five hours the night before. They said he fell asleep, crossed the center line of the two-lane U.S. Highway 80 in Alabama… and slammed into the SUV.”
The collision led to criminal charges filed against Cathey – five counts of criminally negligent homicide levied against him in Russell County, Alabama, where the accident occurred. Those charges are pending.
According to one news account of the trial, Cathey, in a deposition, said he was trying to avoid hitting a dog when the collision occurred. “The dog came out of the ditch right there in front of me,” he testified in a deposition, according to the news report. “I mean when I first saw it I went to the right, and then I went back to the left to keep from going off the road and then I started fightin’ back to the right then that’s when I felt the truck start to lay over.” Other testimony disputed that there was a dog on the highway, according to news reports.
Attorneys for Schnitzer said they planned to appeal. In a statement released to FreightWaves, a spokesman for Schnitzer Southeast said the company “has accepted responsibility for this accident, and we were hoping for a fair and reasonable outcome for all parties. Unfortunately, we believe the trial was riddled with errors, and we plan to appeal it.”
“Operational safety is a core value for Schnitzer Steel and each of its subsidiaries, and we work every day to ensure a safe working environment for our employees and the communities we serve,” the statement said. It added that Schnitzer Southeast has installed cameras in all its vehicles.