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Missouri court upholds nuclear verdict, blasts carrier’s safety practices

Great Plains Trucking faces $20M verdict in fatal accident; judge dissents on barring evidence of motorist’s pot use

A Missouri appellate court upheld a nuclear verdict against Great Plains Trucking. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A Missouri appellate court has upheld a $20 million verdict against Great Plains Trucking in a decision in which the judges took the company to task for its safety practices.

But the ruling drew a partial dissent from one judge over the exclusion of evidence about the marijuana habits of the motorist whose son was killed in 2019 when an 18-wheeler from Great Plains Trucking, based in Salina, Kansas, struck the car on Interstate 70.

Robert Schultz was the 19-year-old son of Carrie Schultz, who was driving the car on Aug. 6, 2019. They were headed to a McDonald’s in Lake St. Louis, Missouri, where they worked beginning with the 6 a.m. shift.

Truck driver Lennis Beck was eastbound on I-70 at about 5:30 a.m. in rainy weather. According to the appellate court, which issue its ruling Tuesday, “Beck did not lessen his speed or remove the cruise control set at 70 miles per hour as he drove through the rain from Kansas City. When Beck arrived in Warrenton, the rain continued, the road was wet, and the windshield wipers were still necessary.”

Schultz’s car fishtailed to avoid another car, took a light hit from a pickup truck, hit a retaining wall and ended up stopped on the highway. It was there that the Beck’s truck struck the vehicle, killing Robert Schultz.

A jury in the Circuit Court of St. Charles County, Missouri, ruled against Great Plains in 2022 almost exactly three years after the crash.

The award was $10 million in compensatory damages against Great Plains and Beck, $10 million in “aggravating circumstances damages” against Great Plains, and $25,000 in aggravating circumstances damages against Beck, according to a recap of the case in the appellate court’s decision.

The award of aggravating circumstances damages was one of the points of appeal in the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, alongside arguments about legal proceedings.

But it was in the commentary about Great Lakes’ actions — and in upholding the lower court award — that the appellate court took the trucking company to task for its practices before and after the accident.

Court says carrier’s practices continued even after the accident

“There is evidence showing Great Lakes itself engaged in conduct before and after the fatal accident in this case that was tantamount to intentional wrongdoing,” the court said.

Among the criticisms the appellate court leveled at Great Lakes, which echoed the findings of the lower court: Safety requirements in the company’s CDL manual gave drivers “discretion” on how closely to follow them, and the company had an “unwritten policy” that allowed drivers to go 4-5 mph over the speed limit.

“A reasonable juror could have found this policy actively directed and encouraged professional truck drivers to violate CDL manual requirements providing drivers must slow their speed when certain conditions are met,” the appellate court wrote.

A juror “could have also inferred from Great Plains’ policy that Great Plains placed its ability to make a profit by prioritizing speed and time above the well-being and safety of the public,” the court wrote.

Beck’s speed was not a point of disagreement; his cruise control was set to 70 and he did not slow even as the weather remained wet and he approached the curve where the collision occurred.

Beck’s frequent transit of the Kansas-to-Georgia route meant he knew the curve was coming up, according to testimony. The driver “knew he could not see around the curve at issue and that he would be driving blind if he drove too fast to stop within the distance he could see ahead of him,” the court wrote. “Although Beck admitted these circumstances were reasons for a truck driver to slow down when driving into the curve, on the date of the accident in this case Beck did not slow down. Instead, with the cruise control still set at 70 mph Beck’s tractor-trailer truck actually accelerated into the curve.”

The court also said that Great Plains, after the crash, did not review whether Beck had “complied with the requirements of the CDL manual, and Great Plains did not tell Beck to lower his speed while driving on a curve or wet road in the future.”

Phone calls and emails to Great Plains and its attorneys had not been returned by publication time. 

A dissent: Marijuana testimony should have been allowed

As to the question of Carrie Schultz’s marijuana use, she testified to being a heavy user, smoking two to three times daily and having used THC resin shortly before the accident. 

A physician who testified in the case is identified in the appellate court decision only as “Doctor.” In a partial dissent to the appellate court finding, Judge Cristian Stevens does not identify the physician by name but says she is chief medical examiner of St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties, and has been for more than 30 years. That suggests she is Dr. Mary Case, who since the trial has stepped down from her role but was in that position when the trial occurred.

Some of her testimony was excluded on the grounds that it was “not reasonable and not relevant.” The physician was testifying on behalf of Great Lakes.

“It was Doctor’s opinion that [Carrie Schultz] was impaired by THC at the time of the accident,” the appellate court said in its review. “Doctor also believed (Schultz’) alleged impairment manifested itself in the form of divided attention and a slowed reaction time, resulting in Mother losing control of her vehicle and causing the accident.”

But the court notes the witness said she “could not state within a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the marijuana resin [Schultz] smoked the morning of the crash contained any THC concentration or that the THC in her blood toxicology was from the resin.” The effect of THC differs from individual to individual, the physician had testified.

The lower court ultimately did not allow the testimony of the physician. Given her lack of certainty, the lower court barred the testimony because it might have “the likely prejudicial effect of allowing the jury to hear her speculative opinions on those issues.”

Stevens’ dissent — which did not challenge any other parts of the lower court decision — said the impact of THC on Carrie Schultz’s driving is “highly relevant evidence and sets an important precedent,” particularly since recreational marijuana use is legal in Missouri.

The judge did not disagree with the finding to exclude the THC blood levels given that there is no agreed-upon standard for comparison of those measurements.

But Carrie Schultz was a “chronic” marijuana smoker, Stevens wrote. The physician had cited several studies on the impact of such use. One of them: “prolonged reaction time and divided attention.” One of the studies she cited concludes that chronic users, even if they are abstaining, “continue to have impaired psychomotor performance” long after they may have halted marijuana use. And THC continues to affect performance even if it can’t be detected in blood levels, according to the papers cited by the testifying doctor.

“The jury should have heard Doctor’s opinion regarding Schultz’s chronic marijuana use, and resulting impairment and loss of control of her car,” Stevens wrote in his dissent.

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  1. Charles M Bates jr

    Another very poor decision by our court system. As the years go on they get worse and worse in there ability to see cause and effect. Truck driver didn’t cause the initial accident. This led to the subsequent accident with the semi. So initial blame for the entire incident was the driver of the car. Not allowing the testimony of drug use as a part of what caused the car to crash in the first place huge mistake. Very bad decision by any and all judges involved. But what do they care they cant be held accountable in any way or even be fired for bad calls.

  2. sipuracku

    so idiot drives too close sleepy, hits something and then he parks on middle of the road without triangles /////9becouse its raining he doesn’t wanna leave the safety of the car and he expects that 80 000 lb truck will have ability to predict idiot in left lane on middle of the road who is making post on facebook how he is stuck in left lane and and its raining and that he should wait for insurance to give him a call what to do next…
    and then he earns 20 mil for his family… great story , now more idiots gonna go and look to earn 20 mil… for their family’s…

  3. Tony

    Clearly, the decision was outcome-driven. Judges’ increasingly rely on “experts “ making litigation more expensive and “gotcha” than truth seeking.

  4. TJ

    So apparently the message here is it’s okay to smoke pot and drive even though it more than likely impaired your driving but because the other side has the big scary truck, they should be held completely liable. Again, it’s sad that anyone died in this crash. And it does sound like the carrier did do some wrong actions But I guarantee that the mother more than likely has not changed her ways and continues to be a marijuana user. If anything this highlighted what is wrong with allowing recreational drug use. We’ve come to the point where it becomes only about the money generated. Whether for the state or the plaintiff attorneys. My dad used to use the phrase when I was a kid that it took two to tangle. Unfortunately, today it does not matter that both sides played a part in the blame. One side is made out to be completely at fault while the other side benefits because of the ambulance chasers with little morals.

  5. James Baumab

    How large of company is Great Plains? What happenes next? Will this company file for bankruptcy protection; thereby limiting the damages $ ?

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.