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Transportation lawyer: $411M nuclear verdict shows jurors had ‘free rein’

The largest nuclear verdict ever against a single trucking defendant was handed to a Pembroke Pines, Florida-based trucking company this month. Top Auto Express Trucking Co. was slapped with a $411 million verdict for a 2018 accident involving a motorcycle driver.

Transportation attorney Kristen Johnson of Central Florida-based transportation law practice Taylor & Associates joined FreightWaves CEO Craig Fuller on this episode of “Fuller Speed Ahead” to discuss the facts surrounding the historic case and the steps trucking companies should take if they find themselves in a similar situation.

As reported earlier by FreightWaves, 18 crashes and eight hospitalizations resulted when a Top Auto Express semi-truck jackknifed after trying to avoid a collision. A prepared statement from the plaintiff’s attorney asserts that motorcycle rider Duane Washington attempted to drive his motorcycle onto a median to avoid the traffic pileup and the risk of being struck by other vehicles. In doing so, Washington collided with a stopped truck that had no lights on in the emergency lane, causing him severe, life-threatening injuries after being thrown from the motorcycle.

The ensuing trial, conducted entirely virtually through Zoom, resulted in a judgement against Top Auto for $411,726,608.

“The jury trial against Top Auto Express was only on the damages portion,” Johnson said. “They actually had a finding of liability because they failed to cooperate and did not respond over the course of the litigation. Ultimately, plaintiff’s counsel moved for a default judgment against this particular trucking company.” She noted that a default judgement hasn’t been filed against the other defendants involved and the case is ongoing.

Johnson reasoned that a default judgment was made against Top Auto Express as the judge called for “severe sanctions for abandoning the case.” Because judges won’t typically give money damages on a default ruling, the case was submitted to a jury, which was conducted via a Zoom trial.

Top Auto Express ultimately represented itself, as its lawyers had previously withdrawn from the case. It is reported that the trucking company had offered to settle the case for $1 million but was rejected.

“The $411 million will never be collected in its entirety but it’s interesting that there’s really no limit on what the jury can do as they obviously had free rein to come up with that number,” Johnson said. “As an award, it’s essentially meaningless for collection but it may have some other meaning for plaintiffs down the road that want that big of a number.”

Fuller added, “It doesn’t seem like there are any winners in the trucking industry from this case. Not only is the settlement a big number but it’s a black eye for our industry.”

Nuclear verdicts ultimately hurt everyone in the industry. It is for this reason that trucking organizations are advocating to establish tort reform to bring an end to lawsuit abuse, according to Johnson. She argues that customers end up paying the price with higher premiums and that insurance rate hikes may even prevent trucking companies from adequately funding their safety programs.

For trucking companies that unfortunately find themselves in a similar situation to Top Auto Express, Johnson recommends immediately implementing an action plan. This includes sending a company representative or contacting your insurance provider to investigate the scene of the accident. Investigators should be sure to gather in-depth pictures, eyewitness testimonies and other relevant information to protect the company with factual information.

“You should never assume that the facts won’t come out,” Johnson said, explaining that even evidence that shows liability is in fact less damaging than what the repercussions could be if no evidence is presented.

Johnson stresses that plaintiff attorneys are good at crafting narratives and will most likely take advantage of factual gaps in the case.

However, the best defense starts with planning early. Johnson recommends inviting your lawyer to inspect your operations to provide feedback for possible risk factors. She also urges trucking companies to invest more in their safety and compliance programs as plaintiff lawyers will often attribute driver errors to insufficient training and rulebook compliance.

“For trucking companies, it’s almost as if it’s only a matter of time until you end up in a courtroom than whether it ever happens,” Fuller said. “It’s just the nature of our business.”

Watch the full conversation with Johnson and Fuller on the latest episode of “Fuller Speed Ahead.”

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One Comment

  1. Niki B

    Great interview. Kristen Johnson is very knowledgeable and engaged to her work and engaging as a speaker. I love the mention of the proactive thoughts/measures that can be taken for those that may be involved. It was good to understand more about nuclear verdicts as it is such a buzz-phrase in the industry right now.

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Jack Glenn

Jack Glenn is a sponsored content writer for FreightWaves and lives in Chattanooga, TN with his golden retriever, Beau. He is a graduate of the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business.