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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 14 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 news tip or story idea, send her an email to chawes@freightwaves.com.

23 Comments

  1. WAIT A MINUTE !

    Quote:
    “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.”

    Quote:
    “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.”

    ???

    WOW ! Now ain’t that the freaking pot calling the kettle black ! And they won based on that argument ??? Unbelievable !

    That being said , condolences to the family .

    It’s a tragic , very tragic accident . However, the truck driver shouldn’t be blamed in this case and especially not on that argument !

    In my humble opinion ……………

    1. Sooooooooo zaragoza according to those ethics should not have been on the road either right ???? like the man said pot and kettle ???

    2. They won the suit because they claimed that Werner was negligent in their dispatching of that driver, on that route, in conditions that were unsafe. Basically, if a safety manual says “this is our standard” and the actions go against that standard, the lawyers are going to claim that the company was negligent. Not saying it’s right or wrong. That’s just how it goes.

      1. Also the attorney’s were not really saying it was the driver’s fault as much as a systemic failure by Werner in following their policy. The driver was just a mechanism to reach the corporation.

    3. Absolutely!
      Not only is it a tragedy for the family but also the Werner drivers as well. They will live with this accident the rest of their lives.

      I could (should say) the car driver should have exercised good judgement and pulled off the road.

      I blame these ambulance chasing attorneys more than the victims. I’ll wager the attorney group hunted the victims down for the case.

      Not to mention that the jury in this case as well as the judge likely were derelict in their duties to instruct and judge fairly. This is certainly a twisted outcome.

  2. The one in Texas wasn’t the werners fualt, the other car crossed the median, this one… yea, Zero observation time? On a fresh recruit? Yea trainer should have called saftey and told them of the problem and had the load removed. They didnt say how long the trainer had been a trainer now didnthey?

  3. I certainly hope Werner appealed the Odessa verdict. Not only did the pickup driver CAUSE the accident, if you do the math there were 5 or more people in that pickup. Were they all buckled in? Were the kids in safety seats? Just asking.

  4. 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.

    So… she lost control of her vehicle, crossed the median into oncoming traffic, and somehow *she* was hit by the Werner driver? It sounds more like she hit the Werner driver.

  5. I drove for Werner and I will tell you this. There is no way to continue training unless you put in the Qualcomm hours of observation. And during training after observation time is the only time one drives and the other sleeps. It’s called team driving, and every load says just in time load. Loads would not be just in time loads if humans were not so inpatient.

  6. Its should happen more often I went thru their training in 1995 . What a joke, the trainer I had I would fire today. these companies hire dumb idiots trained by dumb idiots . When they should work on driver retention ..

  7. When I read about these types of insane verdicts I wonder if there is any common sense left. 90 million for being guilty occupying space at the wrong moment and having a large excess policy? These plaintiffs’ attorney won’t be happy until there is not a single carrier left in operation.

  8. I almost went with Werner in Phx a few years ago. They tried to take my medical card when I failed the “werner” hearing test. Fought with the manager most of the day to get it back. I got it back and still driving today. Just had to get my hearing aide adjusted. But I will never forget those SOB’s for that.
    Jw in the desert…

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