Jury verdict against Werner for Texas fatal crash is the biggest in company history

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Reading the two post-verdict recaps of an almost $90 million verdict handed down this week against Werner Enterprises, it's clear the jury made its choice from two highly different views of the tragic events.

A jury in Harris County, Texas handed down a judgement just under that amount in connection with a collision in late 2014 in wintry conditions near Odessa in West Texas. A Werner official who spoke to Freightwaves said it was by far the biggest judgement that the company has ever had against it, and this website--though unverified--does quote figures of Werner-related settlements far less than the Texas case. This story from a few years ago about rising truck settlements quotes figures for other cases that indicate the Werner verdict is one of the biggest ones ever.

Werner's primary post-verdict statement on the jury's action came in an 8-K filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission, filed when a company has a material event that could affect its financial conditions. In the 8-K, Werner said its maximum liability for the accident is $10 million, with "premium-based coverage above this amount." That $10 million will be accrued in its second quarter earnings. Werner's net income in the first quarter was $27.8 million.

It also said it would appeal.

Here are some of the highlights of Werner's recap of the crash, which took the life of a 7-year-old boy, left his 12-year-old sister with "catastrophic" brain injuries, and injured the childrens' mother and another brother:

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A Werner driver was westbound on interstate 20. The pickup truck carrying the family that suffered the fatal and non-fatal injuries was traveling eastbound--the mother was not the driver--lost control, went through a grassy median "and directly into the path of the Werner unit." The pickup truck had turned around, so its rear was hit by the oncoming Werner truck. 

"Werner’s driver did not receive a citation, and the investigating officers placed no blame on the Werner driver," the company said in its filing. "The Werner driver was traveling well below the posted speed limit, did not lose control of his tractor-trailer, and even brought the unit to a controlled stop after the impact."

The recap from the Penn Law Firm, one of two firms representing the plaintiffs, paints a very different picture, not of the accident itself but of the conditions prior to the wreck. 

There apparently were differing views in the testimony about whether there were icy conditions, but clearly, the roads were not great. "Werner’s witnesses testified that Werner did not allow Ali, its student driver, to have access to basic safety equipment, such as an outside temperature gauge or the CB radio, either of which would have alerted him to the dangerous road conditions at the time," the Penn statement said. A National Weather Service warning about the poor conditions was not communicated to the driver, according to Penn, "allowing (the driver) to average over 60 mph while driving unsupervised through the icy conditions because (the driver) was on a Just-In-Time (JIT) load, requiring delivery to California by the next day."

"Ali averaged in excess of 60 mph for the 52 miles he was driving in icy conditions prior to the crash, and was traveling over 50 mph seconds prior to the collision," Penn said. 

If the driver was traveling 50, that would support Werner's contention that he was below the speed limit. The question then was how slow the truck should have been going given the conditions, and the jury sided with the plaintiffs.