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NewsTrucking

Jury slaps Werner Enterprises with $40.5 million ‘nuclear verdict’ in fatal crash

A New Mexico jury awarded the family of a woman killed in a February 2017 crash involving a student driver for Werner Enterprises Inc. around $40.5 million in damages on Oct. 11 following a two-week trial.

“Nuclear verdicts” are described as jury awards in which penalties exceed $10 million. 

According to court documents, Felipe “Jose” Johnson, of Apopka, Florida, had only been driving for Werner for eight days when the tractor-trailer he was driving crossed four lanes of traffic and a concrete median and collided head-on with the 2012 Honda Pilot driven by Kathryn Armijo. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

The crash occurred around 8 p.m. Feb. 23, 2017, on Interstate 10 outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Based on evidence presented at trial, attorneys for the Armijo family alleged that Werner, “through its own inadequate operations and training programs for its student drivers via Roadmaster Drivers School, had a systematic disregard for basic safety policies and training of new drivers.”

“It was a long hard-fought battle for the family [of Kathryn Armijo],” David Harris, plaintiff co-counsel and partner of Sico Hoelscher Harris, told FreightWaves. “The family’s hope is that this would send a message so that another family isn’t in their same shoes dealing with such a new driver on the road that we all know could be deadly in these situations.”

Werner (NASDAQ:WERN), headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, acquired Roadmaster Drivers School in 2014. The company has around 10,605 drivers and 9,524 power units, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s SAFER website.

Werner did not respond to FreightWaves’ request for comment regarding the verdict.

Court filings alleged that despite Johnson’s inexperience behind the wheel, Werner continued to assign Johnson and his trainer, Gabriel Perez, just-in-time loads “that required Perez to sleep, instead of train, Johnson to avoid an hours-of-service violation.”

As a new driver, Johnson was placed in Werner’s student driver training program, which required his trainer, Perez, “to observe Johnson for a minimum of at least 30 hours” in his first five days. Johnson was also required to observe Perez for “a total of 10 hours during this time.” The company’s policy also stated that Johnson was restricted from “operating Werner equipment when the instructor is not present.”

During his eight days on the job, Johnson drove approximately 64% of the time unsupervised and for the first four days in the truck, Johnson and Perez both “logged zero observation time,” according to court documents.

“Saying you are training versus actually training are two totally different things when you have a brand new driver that has never driven over the road or with a loaded trailer — he doesn’t know how to respond to those conditions,” Harris said. 

This is the second significant verdict against Werner in the past 18 months. In May 2018, a jury in Texas awarded the Blake family nearly $90 million in a fatal crash involving a student driver for Werner. 

In that case, a pickup, driven by Zaragoza Salinas, lost control during icy road conditions on Interstate 20 near Odessa, Texas, and crashed through the median into oncoming traffic and was hit by a Werner student driver Shiraz Ali in 2014. Ali and his trainer were also under a just-in-time load at the time of the crash.

Jennifer Blake, a passenger in the pickup, filed the lawsuit against Werner after her 7-year-old son was killed in the crash that left her 12-year-old daughter a quadriplegic. Blake and her other son were also severely injured in the crash.

Blake’s attorney argued that the student driver should have pulled off the road because of the icy road conditions after the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning less than two hours before the crash.

Neither driver was cited by police in that crash.

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Clarissa Hawes

Clarissa has covered all aspects of the trucking industry for 13 years. She is an award-winning journalist known for her investigative and business reporting. Before joining FreightWaves, she wrote for Land Line Magazine and Trucks.com. Clarissa lives in the Kansas City area with her family. If you have a story idea, send her an email to chawes@freightwaves.com.

22 Comments

  1. It is clear from the awards that the juries are trying to send a message to Werner that their actions alone, take family tragedy away, is unacceptable.

    With the limited information we have about the actions by Werner can any professional driver say that this is acceptable? I am sure Werner looked at the first verdict and with arrogance played this off as all attorneys getting awards based on zero merit. Had they taken a moment to say “Hey, if we truly cared more about others on the road then we will train our drivers like they should be trained.” They clearly ignored the message that the TX verdict sent.

    Professional drivers and carriers have a responsibility to protect others on the roads. That attitude has been lost over the years.

    1. O Ryder truck hit me with a new driver 58 months ago the insurance company or Ryder have not paid for my hyway tractor, lost time and income or my medical bills. It cost the federal government and the province of Ontario more than $23,000 cd or $18,000u.s and me more than $75,000 u.s to date. The court case got delayed again because of mistakes made by me as I cannot afford a lawyer. The Ryder truck hit from behind when I stopped for a car that was blocking my side of the road . The Ryder driver was new , young going over 60 mph in a snow storm never hit the brakes. The award is 10 times what it should be and probably be reduced on appeal. This will raise our insurance rates. The insurance companies should have to make a fair offer within 90 days 5195239586.

    1. And that’s why I’ve Never been at trainer at Werner. If they allowed me to Train Only and not be considered lead driver and expected at some point to drive with my hours of service……We All would have benefited greatly. The student would have total hands on training and a properly rested trainer. Pay the Trainer an hourly wage and the student CPM. Also, to release the trainer of any responsibility for the newly graduated student.

  2. What trainer needed to do is stand up to dispatch, and refuse the load. He should have called saftey and rat out dispatch for that.

  3. I was a trainer at Werner with 9 months experience and driving solo through a winter season. The students I was assigned were young, from larger cities (Chicago and Philadelphia) and had never owned a vehicle before. One had very little desire to learn and would interrupt my training to point out cars like Camaro’s and Charger’s. Werner was hesitant to let me kick him off the truck. Finally I put him off at a terminal.
    Many of the students wanted their cell phone in their hand and close by. That was a hard battle to break. Werner didn’t care, they upgraded drivers from
    Student Status to Solo even when they could barely back. They’d upgrade them starting at 125 hours behind the wheel. It was clearly all about money. I’ve already said they didn’t care, and they didn’t.

  4. Worked for them for a month and quit. They have no clue on load planning and expected you to work during your breaks to make schedule… and I don’t mean just a few minutes.. I mean hrs of your 10… pulled in to a dollar general at 10 PM and at 4 am dispatch called saying customer was there and and to start unloading !

  5. The accident in TX involving a pickup that lost control and went into on coming traffic in the path of the Werner truck, it does not make sense that Werner would be at fault or not. Yes the weather conditions were questionable but even if that Werner truck was not on the road the pickup still would have lost control and who knows what would have happened. The driver could have flipped the truck and all of them could be dead. Does not make sense that it would be Werner’s fault…

    1. I agree with you on this,but the people out here hate truck drivers and lawyers know i it’s easy money if they’re involved in an accident with a commercial truck.

  6. Don’t these law firms understand that most of these trucking companies operate just like the average person, check to check? The first one, the 90 million dollar judgement is currently in appeals because the pickup driver was the one that lost control, crossed the median and hit Werner head on. They simply got a judgement because of a technicality. I seriously doubt Werner Enterprises is worth 40 million, the second judgement, let alone the first 90 million. All the equipment is leased. Most of the buildings are leased from someone else, etc, etc. It’s why CWRV just went out of business because they were slammed with a 30 million dollar verdict. They said the same thing. They don’t own anything that will add up to even remotely close to that. After they liquidate everything, maybe a million dollars? The attorneys get half. Meanwhile
    people loose their jobs. Granted the drivers will be alright but what happens to all the office personnel? The mechanics? Those types of jobs are not a dime a dozen and can take a person several months to find another one, if they even end up back in that field. Most people that loose office jobs or skilled jobs don’t even end up back in that field. They have to take whatever they can immediately find.

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