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April 8, 2013 3:00 AM, EDT

Jury Awards $58.5 Million for Truck Crash

New Mexico Verdict Said to Be Highest Ever
By Rip Watson, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the April 8 print edition of Transport Topics.

A New Mexico jury has awarded the family of a person killed in a 2010 truck-involved accident $58.5 million in damages, believed to be the largest truck accident verdict ever.

The case was brought by Santa Fe Trust, representing the wife and children of Kevin Udy, who was killed when his pickup truck collided with a Zia Transport Inc. truck hauling water from a natural-gas well exploration site. The complaint said the truck turned into Udy’s path.

Other defendants in the case, decided March 20, were Standard E&S LLC and Bergstein Enterprises. Both companies listed the same address as Zia in Lubbock, Texas.

The verdict in the 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe was accompanied by the jury foreman’s comment that, “Our hope is that our judgment will clearly communicate that we expect a much higher standard of safety from the trucking industry.”

The complaint alleged that Zia, Standard and Bergstein allowed trucks to run with numerous safety and traffic violations, as well as improper repair and maintenance issues.

Bergstein, Zia and Standard, an oil-field services firm, failed to return telephone calls requesting comment.

“It’s shocking. I have never heard of a larger trucking verdict,” said Joe Pappalardo, a Cleveland defense attorney who specializes in trucking and other accident cases.

The jury determined that Standard and Bergstein bore 90% of the financial liability for the crash in Carlsbad, N.M., with the rest of the burden placed on the trucking

company — operator of 28 trucks, according to its federal registration report — and the driver.

The award included $11.5 million for compensatory damages and $47 million for punitive damages.

Pappalardo told Transport Topics that the judgment exceeded the typical standard for punitive damages, which is triple the compensatory award.

Evan Tager, a Washington, D.C., attorney and expert on punitive damage cases, told TT there was a possibility that the award could be reduced, either by the judge who heard the case or by an appeals court.

“When compensatory damages are that high, they already serve a punitive damage function,” Tager said. “This appears to be a case where the jury just wanted to award a lot of money.”

Tager also said this case was an example of vicarious liability, in which the company that bore most of the financial burden wasn’t directly involved in the accident.

Plaintiffs chose to go after the company with the potential ability to pay rather than the trucker, whose assets were limited, he added.

The award well-surpassed other large verdicts in trucking cases, such as the $23.2 million that was levied against C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. in a 2004 ruling. In that case, Robinson brokered a load to Toad L. Dragonfly Express, whose leased driver was held liable for an accident in which two people died. Robinson bore 95% of the financial responsibility in that case.

Last year, a Pennsylvania wrongful death case involving a trucking company was settled for $26.1 million.

At press time, there was no indication that the defense had asked Judge Raymond Ortiz to set aside or reduce the New Mexico verdict.

Tager added that a reduction in the award wasn’t guaranteed, citing a case in which a Colorado electrical worker was hurt and a $30 million jury verdict wasn’t reduced.

“This is a very regrettable accident,” said Gail Peters, managing director of the New Mexico Trucking Association.

“The New Mexico Trucking Association extends its sympathy to those individuals and their families who had the misfortune of being involved in, and a part of, such a tragic event for everyone involved, with the hope that such events can continue to be reduced in terms of both frequency and severity on a national level,” Peters said.

Defense attorney Randall Roberts didn’t return calls seeking comment. Neither did plaintiffs’ counsel.

American Trucking Associations declined to comment on the case.