A recent report on the commercial automobile insurance cited two factors as most responsible for hampering this industry: the price inflation of hospital services related to injuries in crashes; and large jury awards. In fact, the report cited two truck crashes that occurred in September 2004 that together resulted in jury awards totaling $36.5-million.
That's an astonishing sum of money. A little over two years ago, I remember being jolted when hearing about a $6.9-million award for a rear-end truck crash in Nashville. Reading about a combined reward of $36.5-million for two crashes was even harder to comprehend.
So I decided to take a deeper look at the circumstances that resulted in the most recent jury awards.
In the first case, a jury in Jackson County, MO, awarded $27 million to a family involved in a crash with a truck on a busy Interstate near Kansas City, MO. In this incident, a truck crashed into a car that had swerved to avoid another vehicle that was merging near a road construction project at an exit ramp.
The crash devastated the family, killing two and injuring two others. One of the injured was an eight-year-old boy who was left with permanent brain damage; in addition, he can only walk with the aid of a large metal walker.
According to witnesses, the truck driver was traveling too fast for the congested conditions. The truck driver also admitted during testimony that he was looking in his rearview mirror and did not see the accident “until it was too late.”
The jury determined that the trucking company was liable for 46% of the total award, i.e., $12.2 million. The driver of the vehicle that initiated first merge was found to be liable for 38%, or $10 million. However, that driver carried only minimal liability coverage-about $50,000.
Unfortunately for the trucking company, Missouri has “vicarious” liability laws, which means “other parties” must cover any shortfall in a total jury award. Consequently, it was ultimately held liable for a total of $18.5 million in damages.
In the second case, a Norfolk, MA, jury awarded $9.5 million to a woman was paralyzed from the waist down after her car was rear-ended by a tanker truck. The woman had been directed to stop by a local police officer because roadwork was blocking her lane. The trucking company admitted fault, despite the fact that records indicated the truck was traveling within the speed limit.
What do these incidents — and the resulting jury awards — mean for a magazine column devoted to fleet safety?
First, we must realize that truck crashes devastate both families and trucking companies. No family can withstand multiple fatalities or a paralyzing event. And carrier can withstand a liability judgment of close to $20 million.
Second, we have to accept the reality that, like many others, these crashes were preventable. They happened because the truck drivers involved were not adequately compensating for construction-related conditions and/or highway congestion.
Third and most important, we must recognize that in some ways human beings are not designed for the driving task. Their visual scanning techniques are designed for walking speed, not for the driving speed of an 80,000-lb. tractor-trailer. It's a shortcoming that we can't avoid, so we have to put even more emphasis on defensive driving when we train our drivers.
So we've got two factors working against us: There are limitations to the skills of both commercial and passenger car drivers, and roadway conditions will not improve anytime soon.
You have two choices. You can sit passively by, hoping your fleet doesn't end up liable for a big jury award, or you can institute a vigilant defensive driving campaign. Not really such a hard decision.
Jim York is the manager of Zurich Service Corp.'s Risk Engineering Transportation Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.