The Rise of Nuclear Verdicts in the Fleet Industry

Jury awards exceeding available insurance coverage, known as nuclear verdicts, are on the rise in the fleet vehicle industry – and those decisions  make it more challenging for businesses with fleet operations. According to a 2020 report from the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), average verdicts in the US trucking industry soared from just over $2.3 million to nearly $22.3 million between 2010 and 2018 – a 967% increase – and these verdicts are still spiking after courts reopened following COVID-related shutdowns.

CEI recently spoke with Peter Bowman, partner at BBB Attorneys of Stratford, CT, who shared his extensive insights into the current state of nuclear verdicts in the fleet vehicle industry, how they came to be, what’s driving them, and how fleet managers can best protect themselves.

CEI: “What are Nuclear Verdicts in the fleet vehicle industry?”

Bowman: “Nuclear verdicts are those whose damages exceed all the insurance policies available. When a nuclear verdict is dropped on a company that can’t or hasn’t taken steps to protect itself, they often face bankruptcy or complete destruction. Nuclear verdicts can be so extreme that company owners’ assets could even be at risk, including real estate, property, and other wealth.”

CEI:  “What should fleets know about nuclear verdicts?”

Bowman: “It’s all about preventing the big one. A nuclear verdict can end a business. To keep that from happening, it’s critical to implement true, believable, and practical driver training and fleet management programs. You’ll save lives, reduce injuries, and be a better company for it.”

CEI: “Why are Nuclear Verdicts on the rise in the fleet vehicle industry?”

Bowman: “Nuclear verdicts with increasing jury awards are becoming more common among lawsuits related to fleet vehicles, primarily due to the rise of massive commercial fleets for companies such as those in the Fortune 100. The public shares the road with the fleets of these household names and views them as having the resources to hire good drivers and properly train them, maintain their vehicles, and take every precaution possible to avoid accidents and keep others safe on the road.”

“However, when those fleet operations fail in any capacity to avoid a severe accident, the public sees the only way to really send a message that prompts meaningful change is by hitting their pocketbook. A nuclear verdict intends not just to award money to an individual or family who has experienced a significant loss but also to punish a company so harshly that they must change their ways or cease operating. The hope is that more companies take responsibility for their drivers and vehicles by keeping up with routine maintenance and inspections, ensuring their drivers are properly licensed and trained, and providing drivers with the resources they need to carry out their duties safely.”

“In today’s environment, with fleets strained to find qualified and properly licensed commercial drivers and the ability of technology to provide irrefutable accident data, the risk of a nuclear verdict is higher than ever and only increasing.”

CEI: “What drives Nuclear Verdicts in fleet vehicle accident cases?”

Bowman: “In the case of a nuclear verdict, juries often can’t help but view defendants as businesses and often have little to no sympathy. There are three main factors that drive nuclear verdicts: driver conduct, severity of injuries, and the actions or inactions of the company. Some of the considerations are:”

 “The driver’s conduct: Have they passed all required training? Did they pass a drug test? Did they perform proper route planning? Any prior incidents? What were their behaviors on the road? Accident investigators and police frequently report that speeding is one of the most significant factors in the severity of any collision, and for which the driver is responsible. If critical safety measures and driving practices are ignored for the sake of making a delivery time, drivers are viewed unfavorably.”

“Severity of the injuries: Fatalities are typically the costliest, but huge verdicts have resulted from injuries that require significant medical care or when multiple passengers or family members were harmed in a collision. In addition to vehicle speed, disparity of the weight and size of the vehicles involved in an accident impacts the severity of injuries, which is why many of the more severe accidents that are the subject of nuclear verdicts involve medium and heavy-duty trucks.”

“The company’s actions as a whole:  Juries look more critically at less-known businesses or those with little tenure in the industry. They want to see that fleets have kept up with scheduled maintenance and addressed any needed repairs. Aspects like brake service, installing a speed governor, and similar precautions for having a safe vehicle are considered. Juries will also look at what the company did to make sure they had a safe driver on the road. The screening process at the time of hire, ongoing license and motor vehicle record verification, drug testing, training, and use of available technology for monitoring road behaviors come into play. All these things can significantly affect how a courtroom will respond to a case.”

“Juries have also shown an expectation of a higher level of safety for fleets in industries considered a higher risk, such as construction and transportation of hazardous materials. A miss on safe operations from companies such as these is seen as more significant. But no matter the type of company in question, any business with fleet vehicles on the road, or employees driving on company business, needs to be aware of nuclear verdicts and take the proper steps to mitigate that risk.”

Protect Your Fleet and Yourself from Risk

As a leading provider of comprehensive fleet management solutions, driver safety training, tracking and visibility tools, and more, CEI helps fleets implement effective strategies to keep their drivers, vehicles, and others safe on the road.

Contact us today to discuss your current fleet management and driver safety programs and let us help mitigate looming risks.

The information, comments and links posted on this blog do not constitute legal advice. For legal advice, contact an attorney at BBB Attorneys or an attorney actively practicing in your jurisdiction.

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