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Trucking Companies: Squirming to Get Off the Hook

Published March 8, 2018 by Bruce Millar

Speeding truck with Company Logo.In our practice, we see that the more devastating the injuries, the more money big trucking companies and their insurance carriers stand to lose. It should not surprise us, then, to see that the deep-pocketed companies and their insurance giants pull out all the stops in order to keep from paying for the damages their insureds have inflicted upon innocent others. The more heinous their errors, the more inventive they become in attempting to justify the negligence.

When a fully loaded commercial tractor-trailer crashed into a car in which a man, his wife, and young daughter were riding, the family members were seriously and permanently injured. The family sued the company under whose credentials the truck was operating.

The victims in the matter of PN Express v. Zegel, 304 Ga. App. 672 (2010) were subjected to a litany of ‘reasons’ why the insurance carrier for the truck and its driver were not really at fault for the accident and the injuries it caused. Attorneys for the defendants argued that they shouldn’t be made to pay damages. Nevertheless, and in the end, the jury who heard the case awarded $11,499,740 in damages to the victims.

The trucking company and its insurer appealed the jury’s verdict and presented the appellate court with a basketful of legal excuses why the jury’s decision should be thrown on the trash heap. Those excuses included but were not limited to:

  • The truck driver wasn’t really an employee of the company because, …oops. We can’t find the driver’s employment file!!
  • The truck wasn’t really the “property” of the company because we’re not sure when we “officially” signed a lease agreement
  • The judge gave the jury too much information
  • The judge did not give the jury enough information
  • The expert witness was not helpful to us
  • The judge abused his discretion in granting a directed verdict to plaintiffs NOT defendants

In this case we see interesting attempts, all unsuccessful; to change the straightforward way in which liability for an accident is assessed.

The Department of Transportation issues licenses to trucking firms in order for them to operate. Federal regulations say that if a truck carries the identifying license numbers of a certain company, that company has complete responsibility to the public for its operation. The truck in question had the company’s logo and DOT licensing information painted on the cab of the truck. The truck was also loaded with freight under the care and protection of the company.

Was the truck driver officially employed by the trucking company?

The fact that the driver was picking up and delivering freight under color of the parent company would indicate so. This was difficult to prove because the employment documents couldn’t be found.

By law, certain documents – in this case, the employment records – must be preserved so that they can be used if/when legal matters arise. The fact that the trucking company in question could not verify the dates upon which the lease agreement were finalized because the paperwork was “lost” led the court to conclude according to Georgia law, that the information in those files might have been detrimental to the trucking company. The jury was instructed on what constitutes the “spoliation of evidence.”  The jury was then correctly instructed to assume that the missing documents would have supported the plaintiff’s case. (Interestingly, the defendant’s did not challenge this particular jury charge on appeal.)

There were, in this case, many, many questions that had to be answered according to existing law. Both the trial court and the appellate court managed to sift through the pile of arguments presented by defendants to find, at the bottom of the heap, that the laws of Georgia and the United States of America had this unfortunate family covered.

Personal injury law is not as cut-and-dried as some might imagine. It takes a dedicated firm of committed advocates to prepare for lawsuits that will be aggressively challenged by big insurance carriers. Don’t trust your case to just anybody. Call The Millar Law Firm today for a free case evaluation. Let us help determine how to best approach your case and help you to recover some of what you’ve lost.

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