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Whopping $411 million nuclear verdict in Florida said to be biggest ever and tough to collect

Photo: JIm Allen/FreightWaves

A Florida jury has handed down what is believed to be the biggest nuclear verdict ever against a single trucking company defendant: a $411 million verdict handed down in Florida to a motorcycle driver.

According to local press reports and a prepared statement issued by the attorney for the plaintiff in the case, a jury in a virtual Zoom trial handed down a $411,726,608 verdict in favor of Duane Washington for injuries he received in a 45-vehicle pileup in 2018.

But that’s where the normalcy ends. The case has numerous twists in it that may mean it won’t set firm precedents even if it is likely to set the trucking plaintiffs and defendant’s bar into an uproar.

The facts of the case are this: A motorcycle rider named Duane Washington was part of a 45-car pileup in Florida in 2018. Washington was the plaintiff in the case. The defendant is a single-tractor company named Top Auto Express Trucking Company, based in Pembroke Pines, Florida. According to data on the company in its Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration file, it no longer has its authority.

According to a report from Tallahassee television station WCTV, which also covered the crash in 2018, the pileup resulted in 18 crashes and eight hospitalizations. According to its report, “a semi-truck (from) Top Auto Trucking Company tried to avoid a collision, but instead jackknifed and caused the domino effect of crashes.”

A prepared statement released by Washington’s attorney, Ben Crump, following the verdict described what happened next: “Washington attempted to drive his motorcycle onto a median to avoid the pileup and the risk of other vehicles crashing into him – but before he could do so, Washington collided with a stopped truck that had no lights on in the emergency lane. The collision launched Washington into the median and left him with severe, life-threatening injuries.”

Mike Langford of the law firm of Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary, which was not involved in the trial but as a trucking-focused law firm follows nuclear verdicts, said his research indicates the $411 million verdict is the biggest ever against a single-company defendant. He said there may be other cases with multiple verdicts that cumulatively exceeded this case, but nothing has topped the $411 million in terms of a one-off payment.

But there are other twists. For example, according to the WCTV report, Top Auto Express defended itself at trial. It quoted a separate attorney that had been on the case but had been released from its representation several months ago.

According to the press release from plaintiff attorney Crump’s law firm, Top Auto had offered to settle the case for $1 million but was rejected.

Attorneys contacted by FreightWaves who did not want to be identified said that figure appears to indicate that it might be the top range of liability coverage that Top Auto Express had at the time. It may have made that offer, knowing it could go no further, and then walked away from further defense of Top Auto.  

What all this points to is that even a fraction of the $411 million verdict might be effectively impossible to collect. Payment would be sought from a company that had one truck, whose authority appears to have disappeared and whose insurance company may already have offered the maximum under the policy.

Phone calls to two numbers listed for Top Auto Express were not answered and voice mails left with both were not returned by publication time.

FreightWaves also has sought comment from Crump and his law firm but also had not received a response at publication time. 

Besides the size of the verdict, the fact that the trial was a Zoom trial is notable. The jury heard the case via Zoom, all the testimony was presented that way as well and jury deliberations went on via Zoom. . 

One attorney contacted by FreightWaves, commenting on the case, said he thought a plaintiffs’ attorney in general would be less willing to do a Zoom trial because of the limitations that such a setting might have on making emotional appeals to a jury on the injuries suffered by Washington. 

He added that whether a jury can stay truly free from outside influences while being entirely at home, even including deliberations, was questionable as well. But he also conceded that the Zoom case doesn’t seem to have impacted Crump’s case against the trucking company. 

“”This is a significant, historic ruling for justice,” Crump said in his prepared announcement. “COVID demanded an unprecedented Zoom trial, but it didn’t stop the jury from hearing and understanding the evidence and returning a record verdict.”

Washington’s injuries described by Crump in the announcement are significant. Both sides of his pelvis were broken away from his spine, he had “severe” colon and urethra damage, “permanent incontinence” and a loss of sexual function. He is in “constant pain.”

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    1. Stephen Webster

      The 2 million dollars figure is based on a 30 years of medical care and lost earnings. A study was done in 2006 in Canada along with truck drivers wages

  1. Stephen Webster

    This is not good we have to limit each person injured or killed to 2 million U S dollars. I understand people be frustrated as I was injured in a accident and 5 years later not paid or my medical bills. The insurance companies need a complete change and overhaul. In my case my house was condemned 7 years ago after a wind storm hit my house. The Ford government cuts to medical care has down loaded costs to Non profit groups and costs people use of their legs or hand. In the U S people need to get good medical care after any accidents no matter whose fault. Truck drivers need protection for medical care anywhere in North America. We need to set up large Captive insurance groups for all small trucking companies in Canada and Mexico that go into the U S.

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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.