Institutional processes, methods can add safeguards

May 1, 2009
In Today's litigious society, the focus is not always who was right or wrong. Often, any lawsuit concentrates on what policies and procedures were implemented

In Today's litigious society, the focus is not always who was right or wrong. Often, any lawsuit concentrates on what policies and procedures were implemented within the organizations involved. This situation is compounded in the event of at-fault bodily injury, particularly if there is a loss of life.

The workshop, Surviving An At-Fault Accident, dealt with a hypothetical case study and analyzed it to show how to create a firewall between corporate do or die. It was presented by Jim O'Neal, president of O&S Trucking and past TCA chairman, and Rose Kastrup, O&S Trucking's director of risk management/safety.

Based in Springfield, Missouri, O&S Trucking services customers throughout the continuous 48 states and Canada with a fleet of more than 350 trucks.

The scenario was a tractortrailer rig involved in an accident in which there were fatalities. The family of the deceased sued the trucking company because it was considered an at-fault incident.

“At-fault fatality accidents are very, very serious,” O'Neal told workshop attendees. “The event changes everyone's life.

“Lawsuits can take years to settle. You can't imagine what an emotionally draining process it is. It causes emotional and mental stresses to plaintiffs, defendants, and everyone else involved.”

Safety culture

“Nothing can be done after an accident to undo institutional failures, even those that might be occurring in your company that you don't even know about,” O'Neal said. “When an accident happens, your past becomes the present, the future becomes irrelevant, and you can't do anything going forward to change things or how you're going to defend yourself. You are frozen in time with the culture of safety you have in place at the time.”

However, he emphasized that having uniform compliance of company policies can take a catastrophic business-ending event to a favorable surviving result.

Even if a trucking company “has a great safety program, a great commitment to safety, and a strong culture of safety, it is still going to be held to an incredibly high standard,” said O'Neal. Companies that don't have such programs and practices face a financial catastrophe.

Among other things, methods and processes used in hiring drivers come under close scrutiny because the plaintiff's attorneys will try to establish a negligent hire or retention, Kastrup observed.

“No matter how well you do things, they can be turned about and used against you,” she said.

The trucking company in the scenario audited logs more thoroughly than many carriers. That would seem to be a good thing, she noted, but it came back to haunt the company.

The company did extensive auditing on hours-of-service, and issues violation letters to drivers. These were kept from the time a driver is hired though termination, even though that isn't a DOT requirement.

At the time, terminology used by the trucking company's logging system had default words that included “speeding” and “falsification” on log violation letters to driver, even though the words didn't necessarily reflect the exact nature of the violation -- for example, forgetting a signature.

The trucking company didn't think twice about the terminology because it is typical in the industry, said O'Neal. The plaintiff's lawyers used the terms to make it sound like there were all kinds of safety issues.

“Those outside the industry don't understand these types of things, and it's very difficult to explain such things away,” Kastrup said.

O'Neal stressed that “no matter how well a company does things, no matter how well-intended, and no matter how best- practice it is, processes, systems, and methods can be used against the company. That is why it is so important to have a solid safety culture, and all these values must be supported by all your associates.”

In closing, Kastrup advised: “Communicate with your people, and educate them constantly and consistently.”

“Do whatever it takes to prevent at-fault accidents,” said O'Neal. “You will never know in this lifetime the lives you saved, but I believe, someday in another time and place, we will know.

“We hope you will take out of here an attitude to redouble your efforts to prevent a tragic loss of life. The only solution is prevention.”

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