‘Nuclear’ Lawsuits Against Truckers Continue to Rise
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A new study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform found that trucking in America is “under siege by litigation.”
“Verdicts in trucking accident cases accelerated in size starting in the 2000s but have skyrocketed over the last 10 years, despite a decreased rate of serious trucking crashes over that time frame,” the study said. “Moreover, with the inflation of verdicts and settlements, the search for deep pockets is expanding and the circle of potential defendants is widening.” A review of 154 trucking litigation verdicts and settlements from June 2020 to April 2023 revealed a statistical mean plaintiffs’ award of $27.5 million and a statistical median award of $759,875 for settlements.
This rise occurred despite a declining rate of fatal crashes, researchers found.
“At the same time, between 2000 and 2020, the rate of fatal crashes involving a truck decreased from 2.23 to 1.47 per hundred million large truck miles traveled — a drop of 34.4%,” the study concluded. “In other words, even though trucking is getting safer, verdicts are getting bigger. And that’s a problem.”
Nathan Morris, the senior vice president of legal reform advocacy at the institute,said in an interview that the most important takeaway of the study is that “litigation excesses have an impact that goes far beyond the courtroom. It’s something every consumer in America feels when verdicts are unchecked and not tethered to actual liability.”
On the plus side, Morris said policymakers in some states, such as Texas, have paid attention to the problem and have made some significant regulatory reforms.
In one concerning trend, however, the study found that some trucking fleets are reducing their insurance coverage as the cost of insurance goes up. Such a move can hurt a carrier financially in the long run, Morris warned.
“Though it may be tempting to discard the mean numbers and focus more on the median, trucking companies and insurers alike must be aware that those extraordinary, high-dollar verdicts and settlements persist despite an improved public perception of the industry, and therefore must be part of any risk analysis,” the study concluded. “Although it took some time for jury trials to ramp up again after the peak of the pandemic, somewhat limiting the available data, the review suggests trucking’s improved public perception has not translated to a more reasonable litigation environment. Numerous studies, including this paper’s review of more recent trucking verdicts and settlements, demonstrate that awards are increasing at a rate that has far outpaced inflation.”
The institute’s research also explored the various factors driving the litigation trend, most of which are tactical litigation tools that drive up verdicts. These tactics include plaintiff attorneys’ use of medical referral networks and inflated billing practices; so-called “reptile” courtroom tactics; a widening circle of defendants to reach deeper pockets; and an “ambiguous and exploitable” standard of care for trucking operations.
The Chamber’s research also showed that the plaintiff bar has targeted the trucking industry as a source of inflated verdicts and settlements. It concluded that policymakers, judges and professional ethics regulators must continue to take action to achieve more balance and fairness in truck accident litigation.
It noted that so-called “reptile tactics” involve attempts by plaintiff attorneys “to instill fear in jurors and make them think the only way they can keep their loved ones and the community safe is to award massive damages to the plaintiff. The pernicious effect of ‘reptile’ tactics is to divert the juror’s attention from the legal elements of a claim,” the study said.
The research also offered a number of potential solutions to the nuclear verdict problem, including:
- Requiring transparency in claiming medical damages. Researchers also said legislation should limit medical damages to reasonable and customary amounts actually paid instead of inflated amounts billed.
- Prohibiting the presentation of inflammatory arguments if a defendant trucking firm stipulates responsibility for a driver’s negligence.
- Prohibit the practice of “anchoring,” which would ensure noneconomic damages are supported by evidence and not arbitrarily chosen.
- Permit evidence of non-use of seat belts by plaintiffs in damages calculations.
- Policymakers and judges should defer to federal agencies in deciding whether contracting with a motor carrier is reasonable or whether a truck is properly equipped.
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