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.