When trucking attorney Ted Perryman was arguing a case in court last October, he brought with him a secret weapon.
"The plaintiff's expert was on the stand, and he actually paid me a compliment," Perryman explained. "He said, 'You know quite a bit about trucking.' I've also had experts tell me before depositions: 'Well you must do a lot of trucking work, because you know what a pre-trip is, what different parts of the truck are and how to drive.'"
Perryman knows about trucking because his father was a trucker, his son is a trucker, and he and six other lawyers in his firm went to truck driving school in 2011 and got their CDLs.
This knowledge and skill places him in a much better position to defend carriers and drivers than most of the attorneys he faces.
"Most of these cases are defended by insurance companies and they're the standard insurance defense lawyers," he said. "I'm not saying they're not good lawyers, but they handle slip-and-falls, they handle product liability, they handle any number of things for the insurance company, but trucking is unique in a lot of respects."
Perryman got the idea to send his lawyers at Roberts Perryman to driving school while attending a conference about eight years ago. At the time, he had been representing trucking companies and drivers for more than 25 years. He was listening to Jeff Davis, then safety director at Jet Express, give a speech where he challenged the audience full of lawyers. "I'm paraphrasing, but he said something like: 'I just wish one of you guys could drive a mile in one of our trucks' or something to that affect."
"I started thinking about what he said, so we kicked it around here," Perryman noted. "We decided in the spring of 2011 that we would try to go to truck driving school. I searched around different schools and I found one here in St. Louis that would let us go on a part-time basis so we wouldn't have to give up a month of practicing law. We went an afternoon here or an afternoon there. We would spend a day and then take two days off, so it took about three months."
"I think everybody was a little skeptical at first, even the instructors, but it turned out that we were raving about it by the end,” he added. “We went through the school, we all graduated and we all took our CDL exams and the driving test and all of us passed. It was quite a bonding experience. There were seven of us. Men and women; young and old."
Hear what the other lawyers said about truck driving school and their new appreciation of drivers in the video below:
The experience continues to pay off. "Driving is a difficult job and even though we have represented drivers for many years and although we defended them and we liked them and I think we were nice to them, I don't know that we respected them like we do now," Perryman stressed. "Anytime anybody says anything negative about truck drivers we immediately jump to their defense and say, 'Look you don't understand why he didn't see that other vehicle when he changed lanes' or 'do you know how dangerous it is when a car passes a truck and then moves right in front of the truck?' We all have a new-found respect for drivers. I'm not saying we didn't have it before, but it's different now."
The experience has helped in prepping drivers for their court testimonies. "Most of the time when you have a case they take a deposition of the driver prior to trial," he explained. "We have to prepare the driver to be able to handle a lot of the questions, because most of the questions now are not just about the accident, they're about his background, his speeding tickets, training, and everything in his life. It helps us tremendously to prepare them. I think some drivers believe that our training is kind of a joke, but I would say by-and-large most of them say, 'We'll give you credit for doing that.' I think we gain some credibility with them."
Perryman notes that there are expert witnesses who take liberties with their answers, and his driver training aids there, too. "We're able to say: 'Wait a minute… when we were driving we were doing this… ' It gives you a sense of confidence [to refute an expert witness] that maybe you wouldn't have been able to refute otherwise."
"I don't pretend that I'm a truck driver by any stretch of the imagination, but going to school, getting the CDL and driving gave us a degree of confidence, and I think truckers feel more like we're on their side," he concluded.