Philadelphia Judge Rejects $25M Jury Verdict in Truck Crash

Award Resulting From 2019 Accident Called ‘Clearly Inappropriate’
Getty image depicting reduced jury award
The December 2019 accident involved a tractor-trailer crashing into another tractor-trailer. (porcorex/Getty Images)

In an unusual ruling, a state judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas last month erased a “clearly inappropriate” $25 million jury verdict for punitive damages in a 2019 truck-involved accident lawsuit.

However, Judge Gwendolyn Bright’s decision still left the defendant, Lancaster, Pa.-based Ecore International, a family-owned recreational flooring firm with only four trucks, facing a $1 million jury award in compensatory damages.

In Pennsylvania, the courts of common pleas hear major civil and criminal cases.

Before the judge reduced the jury verdict, it seemed that the litigation — Clemmons v. Ecore International — would stand as another nuclear jury verdict, like some past decisions that tilted the scales of justice against motor carriers.

“The court’s reduction of punitive damages, called a remittitur, was based on its belief that the $25 million strains credulity,” said Doug Marcello, an attorney with the Harrisburg, Pa., law firm of Saxton & Stump. “A key outcome of this case is the recognition of the limits of punitive damages and the relationship between them and compensatory damages.”

Doug Marcello


In general, punitive damages are intended to punish individuals for their wrongdoing, while compensatory damages are aimed at paying a person who was injured.

The December 2019 accident seemed uncommon since it involved a tractor-trailer crashing into another tractor-trailer. The record shows that Ecore’s tractor-trailer was driven by Randy Lehr on a midnight run under adverse weather conditions on U.S. Route 30 when it slammed into another tractor-trailer at roadside, owned by independent owner-operator Patrick Clemmons.

Clemmons suffered a brain injury and was forced to quit driving his truck and close down his independently operated trucking business, court documents said.

Attorneys representing the plaintiff and defendant did not return phone calls seeking comment.


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However, documents filed with the court had some traces of a familiar tale of plaintiff attorney tactics, often involving what has become known as the “reptile method.” That strategy has been used to inflate jury verdicts in truck accident cases. 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 their clients.

“The pernicious effect of reptile tactics is to divert the juror’s attention from the legal elements of a claim,” according to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform.

Court documents in the Clemmons case claim that the plaintiff’s attorneys prevailed at the 10-day trial by relentlessly arguing that Ecore driver Lehr was speeding and that such conduct “required compensatory and punitive damages against both Lehr and Ecore.”

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“This theme was emphasized by counsel’s repeated use of the phrase ‘speed kills’ to illustrate why Lehr and Ecore should be punished, according to Ecore’s attorney.

The plaintiff’s attorney apparently succeeded in convincing the jury that both defendants’ conduct was “reckless” and “outrageous.”

It was snowing the night of the crash, and the plaintiff’s attorney said Lehr was driving 8 mph over the speed limit when his truck struck Clemmons’ truck.

Ecore’s attorneys argued that the verdict was excessive because Clemmons’ truck was illegally parked and the Ecore truck traveling slightly over the speed limit was not the cause of the crash.

“Plaintiff’s counsel emphasized that the sole basis for the award of punitive damages was ‘for their conduct in not doing a single thing to prevent Mr. Lehr from speeding,’ ” Ecore’s defense said in court filings. “They cannot speed, because if they speed, we know what happens. They crash. They kill. They hurt.”