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NFL QB's estate settlement after highway fatality shows trucking's lawsuit burden

Aug. 24, 2023
Lawyer advises fleets to invest in current truck maintenance standards and train drivers to operate with 'heightened awareness at all times' as nuclear verdicts continue to threaten the trucking industry.

The estate of deceased NFL quarterback Dwayne Haskins settled with the legal team representing the trucker who struck and killed the 24-year-old pedestrian as he crossed a Florida highway on an early April morning in 2022. The settlement shows how fleets and truck drivers face a significant burden of proof to avoid large settlement verdicts after fatal high incidents.

Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but the Haskins family's lawyer, Rick Ellsley, who filed a massive suit in March naming 15 different defendants, told FleetOwner affiliate Fleet Maintenance that the settlement now removes the driver, Oriel Patino, as well as the truck owner Pedro Diaz and broker Sorrell Enterprises from the suit.

Lawyers representing the truck's insurance company handled the settlement. However, the question remains about why these defendants' legal team settled.

Patino was not criminally charged, and a toxicology report found Haskins had a blood alcohol content (BAC) as high as 0.24—three times the legal driving limit in Florida. He was also in the middle of Interstate 595, where he ended up after his rental car ran out of gas. But the defense had two things working against them.

First, as Ellsley pointed out, "other drivers who had seen [Haskins] on the roadway managed to call 911," while Patino did not. "Other people saw this; why didn't this driver?" Ellsley asked.

Haskins was wearing black clothing, and it was still dark out, but Patino's red 1994 Kenworth T800 truck was speeding, though "not excessively," Ellsley said.

The other factor working against the trucking side was that a post-collision Level 1 inspection of the truck found braking system issues that would have resulted in out-of-service violations. Ellsley said, "That also played a role in the evaluation of the case."

A greater focus is being placed on brake maintenance this week, as the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance is holding its annual Brake Safety Week (Aug. 20-26) to ensure trucks' braking systems are properly maintained. Last year, U.S. inspectors checked 34,402 vehicles and handed out OOS violations to 13.6%.

See also: Last-minute advice during Brake Safety Week

Highway fatalities rise along with nuclear verdict threats

While the events surrounding Haskins' tragic death—which involve allegations of drugging, extortion, and a malfunctioning rental car, along with an ill-placed sign and poor lighting on the highway—are likely never to be duplicated, accidents involving commercial vehicles are all too common. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2021, an estimated 523,796 large trucks were involved in a police-reported crash, which resulted in 5,788 fatalities. The deaths increased by 17% over 2020.

As a result of these truck-related deaths, nuclear verdicts or civil suits resulting in multi-million payouts to plaintiffs have become a severe threat to the trucking industry. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform reviewed 154 litigation verdicts from June 2020 to April 2023 and found the plaintiff's award average was $31,862,776, with a median of $314,217. This was a massive increase over the 2006-2020 mean of $3,162,571.

For settlements, the mean was $10,608,219, and the median was $210,000.

To protect against litigation, Ellsley had this advice for fleets: "Make sure your vehicles are properly maintained to the current standards, and don't hesitate to put money in to do that. And then make sure your drivers are properly trained to keep a proper lookout and have heightened awareness at all times."

Government seeks technological intervention to reduce road deaths

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that in 2022, 42,795 people were killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has proposed two rules that could help prevent future roadway fatalities.

One would require the engine control units of commercial vehicles with a gross vehicle weight over 26,001 lb. to govern a truck's maximum speed. A more recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking published by the FMCSA and NHTSA calls for vehicles exceeding 10,000 lb. GVWR to have automatic emergency braking systems installed on them.

The AEB rule alone may prevent 19,118 crashes, 155 fatalities, and 8,814 injuries per year, according to NHTSA.

This article originally appeared on FleetOwner affiliate site Fleet Maintenance, an Endeavor Business Media publication.
About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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