A Michigan jury recently awarded $7.7 million to a man who was seriously injured in 2018 when the wheel came loose from a box truck heading in the opposite direction, jumped the median and crashed into the front of his vehicle.
It took an eight-person jury less than two hours on Friday to find Lower Huron Chemical & Supply Co. of Wayne, Michigan, solely responsible for failing to follow the Department of Transportation’s regulations for the inspection, repair and maintenance of its commercial vehicles.
The jury award was announced following a 15-day civil trial in Oakland County, Michigan, Circuit Court.
On Aug. 13, 2018, Vincent Doa of Brighton, Michigan, was driving eastbound on Interstate 96 near Wixom, Michigan, when the wheel of a 2005 International box truck driven by Nicholas Lopez of Garden City, Michigan, who was headed westbound, came loose, rolled over the median and slammed into the front of Doa’s car.
According to court documents, Lopez drove for Lower Huron Chemical & Supply Co. of Wayne, Michigan. Attorneys said this was Lopez’s first job in the trucking industry.
“It was incredibly important to this jury that they heard from every trucking person, every maintenance trucking person, whether layman or expert, and they also heard from three different cops, who were involved in the investigation or accident reconstruction,” attorney Ven Johnson, who represented Doa, told FreightWaves. “These people talked about how fatal and how common [wheels coming off commercial vehicles] are and that 99.9% are preventable. It’s a maintenance inspection issue.”
Johnson said Doa, now 71, suffered a traumatic brain injury, spinal cord compression, rotator cuff tear and brachial plexopathy. Since the crash, he added that Doa, the owner of a Michigan-based construction company, suffers from PTSD and chronic pain.
Lower Huron, an intrastate trucking company that hauls paper products and chemicals, has five trucks and the same number of drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Safety and Fitness Electronic Records (SAFER) website.
Company attorney Michael Edmunds of Gault Davison P.C. said Lower Huron had a training program for its drivers regarding pretrip inspections, which included looking for oil leaks.
“The company was not aware that it had an obligation to actually check the oil in the wheel hubs during the pretrip inspection,” Edmunds told FreightWaves.
Instead, Lower Huron used CommFleet Inc., headquartered in Taylor, Michigan, to service its trucks for annual exams and other periodic repairs. CommFleet, which inspected the 2005 International truck in May 2018, three months before the crash, and again three months after the incident, was dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Lopez, who was new to the trucking industry, was also dismissed from the case before trial.
Edmunds said Lower Huron, a family-owned business since 1981, relied upon the CommFleet mechanic to “check and replace wheel hub oil.”
“Plaintiff argued that FMCSA required drivers to do so, but there is no explicit requirement in the CFR [code of federal regulations] to check wheel hub oil, just a general requirement to see that trucks are properly lubricated,” Edmunds said. “However, the owner’s manual for the truck recommended daily pretrip inspection of wheel hub oil, so [Lower Huron] has instituted a policy requiring that to be part of pretrip inspections.”
Johnson said the award was so high because the jurors “felt threatened by the conduct” of the company.
“The company admitted the wheel came off but did not admit negligence,” Johnson said. “The owner and employees of the company admit they don’t follow DOT regs, admit that they’ve never read them because they wouldn’t have time to run their business and admit they had no preventative maintenance program whatsoever.”
According to Johnson, Lower Huron had a document retention policy that after the stack got too high after two or three months, the company just tossed the paperwork.
Lower Huron attorney Edmunds didn’t say whether the company planned to appeal the $7.7 million jury award to Doa.
Despite Lower Huron’s efforts to show that Doa continued to work and run his construction business despite his injuries, Johnson said his client’s business suffered and he lost accounts stemming from the incident.
“If he didn’t own the company, [Doa] wouldn’t have been able to work because of all the time he missed on appointments and physical therapy,” Johnson said. “He had three crappy years in a row following the crash, but then last year he had his best year in a long time.”
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