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Plaintiffs’ attorneys: ATRI nuclear verdict report needs reality check

Group contends negligence – not multi-million-dollar verdicts – are causing economic harm to industry

ATAA says unsafe trucking raises dollar amounts of crash victim verdicts. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Negligent trucking companies – not nuclear verdicts – are to blame for putting trucking companies out of business, a plaintiff’s attorney group has warned.

That message from the 700-member Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys (ATAA) was in response to research released this week by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) in which ATRI underscored “foundational changes” are needed in a trial system that has gotten off track in assessing an increase in the number of such multi-million dollar verdicts.

ATAA pushed back against that premise.

“Good companies with good drivers rarely kill families, maim motorists, and destroy lives. When they do, they admit fault and settle,” asserted ATAA co-founder Michael Leizerman in a statement.

“Nuclear verdicts are the result of nuclear injuries – paralysis, brain damage and death, when the truck company has acted extremely recklessly – sometimes with impunity – and refuse to be accountable. Verdicts aren’t strangling the trucking industry. Bad trucking companies are strangling the trucking industry.”

ATRI’s report, which found that the number of cases with verdicts over $1 million increased 335% between 2012 and 2019, acknowledged that nuclear verdicts are both uncommon and do not directly cause motor carriers to go out of business. But it noted that survey respondents cited increased insurance costs – an indirect consequence of large verdicts – as a primary reason for trucking companies having to close their doors.

However, “there is often insurance to pay these verdicts,” ATAA contends. “The ATRI report notes that, as a result of large verdicts, ‘insurance companies are more selective in who they insure.’ This is exactly how the tort system is supposed to work to keep everybody safe. If a company isn’t performing required drug tests, for example, then insurance companies shouldn’t give them insurance and allow them to be on the road, since the federal government has insufficient staff to monitor all motor carriers.”

ATAA maintains the root of the problem is that insurance minimum limits required to be held by carriers have remained unchanged in over 40 years.

“Taxpayers end up paying for the lifetime care of trucking victims when at-fault motor carriers should pay,” Leizerman said. “Large truck companies don’t have to pay the few $10 million-plus verdicts, they have insurance to cover this. But the trucking companies with only minimum insurance can’t pay for the harm they cause.”

Last week lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives included in their version of the surface transportation reauthorization an amendment to more than double the required amount of insurance coverage for truck owners from $750,000 to $2 million.

Both ATAA and ATRI agreed that nuclear verdicts are also a result of the way truck crashes are defended, but emphasized different reasons.

“The public is tired of baseless denials of obviously dangerous conduct and bad truck companies,” said ATAA’s other co-founder, Joe Fried. “The way the public responds is with these large verdicts. It is rare to see a nuclear verdict when bad conduct is admitted.”

ATRI Senior Vice President Dan Murray said the issue is one of preparation. “There is a huge business model disconnect between the defense and the plaintiff,” Murray told attendees at a Truckload Carriers Association meeting earlier this year. “The plaintiff puts everything into it. The defense does cost minimization.”

In addition, “We need to make the jury understand the trucking company is a good steward, has a great safety culture and is a job creator,” Murray said. “The messaging must change.”

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.