Georgia Truck Accident Cases: What Happens When You Sue The Insurance Company Directly?
In many Georgia truck accident cases, you can sue the trucking insurance company directly in what is known as a direct action. This means that—unlike in Georgia car accident cases – the insurance company can be a defendant in your case. In court, this can be a significant advantage, as the Jury will know exactly who is pulling the strings on the defense team. The insurance company.
But when you do sue the insurance company directly, be prepared for a fight! Insurers of truckers and other large commercial vehicles often do anything and everything possible to keep from paying a claim, or to pay the least amount they can get away with.
Here, we describe two cases in which victims of accidents were forced to fight through expensive trials and appeals, but in the end received the compensation they deserved.
Trucking Accidents: “Direct Action” and Destruction of Evidence
Our first example is a 2004 case from the Georgia Court of Appeals: Jarrard v. Clarendon National Insurance Co. (267 Ga. App. 594).
In this case, a victim was in an accident with a tractor-trailer carrying plywood. The truck belonged to a company whose liability insurance coverage was carried by Clarendon National Insurance Company.
The victim sued the trucking company and the truck driver for damages. Plaintiffs later added the insurance company as well under Georgia’s special “direct action” law.
Bogus Defenses to a Legitimate Georgia “Direct Action” Case
The insurance company insisted that under an obscure law they could not be added to the lawsuit because they were exempt from being sued directly. They claimed they were exempt because of a law that protects trucking insurance companies from being sued for accidents involving vehicles that haul agricultural products. The trial court agreed with the insurance company and, at first, the suit was dismissed.
However, what the insurance company failed to mention when it tried to hide behind this exemption is that it only applies to vehicles that exclusively transport agricultural or dairy products. By law, it was the responsibility of the insurance company to prove that the vehicle exclusively transported agricultural or dairy products.
When Clarendon Insurance claimed the exemption, they only showed that the truck was transporting lumber on the day of the accident, not at every time leading up to the day of the accident. Fortunately for the injured driver, he had good attorneys who appealed the case.
Higher Court Ruled for the Plaintiff
The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court made a mistake by allowing the insurance company to claim the exemption without proving their qualification for it. The higher court ruled that merely saying that a truck was hauling an exempt product on the day of the accident is not enough to show that it was exclusively used for that purpose at all times.
In the end, justice prevailed. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the lower court and did not allow the trucking insurance company to wiggle out of covering the claim.
How The Interstate Highway Truck Wreck Happened
The accident occurred on Interstate 20 in Greene County between Atlanta and Augusta. The driver of the passenger vehicle, a pickup truck, had a problem and stopped on the shoulder of the highway. The tractor trailer owned by the trucking company collided with the pickup, causing severe, permanent injuries to the driver of the pickup.
The Trucking Company and Insurer Destroyed Evidence – A Costly Plan
In addition to the insurance company’s failed attempt to avoid paying anything at all under the ‘agricultural’ exception to Georgia’s Direct Action Statute, both the trucking company and the insurance carrier also tried to hide evidence by:
- Lying in numerous responses to written discovery questions (known as interrogatories) and in responses to requests for documents;
- Destroying crucial material evidence;
- Skirting court rules related to subpoenas; and by
- Attempting to prevent discovery of pertinent and potentially damaging evidence.
A particularly damning action by the trucking company was its destruction of vital crash data located on the truck’s computer system. This data is crucial to establishing truck speed, engine speed, braking information, the amount of accelerator involvement, and whether the cruise control was activated.
Initially, the trucking company even denied the truck had computer data related to the accident.
The company was notified early that there was the possibility of litigation. The attorney representing the injured driver of the passenger vehicle sent a letter within days of the accident requesting that the company preserve important evidence. They were asked immediately to keep computer data, personnel records of the driver of the company’s truck, and other relevant documents, as well as information on the condition of the truck immediately following the accident.
In spite of the fact that they knew a lawsuit was likely, the trucking company said in its discovery responses that many of the requested documents had been destroyed pursuant to its policy of retaining documents for six months only. It also said that it had made repairs to the truck within five days of the accident, before the injured driver’s attorney had a chance to inspect it.
Defense Stonewalling Invited Expensive Sanctions
Before the case even came to trial, the trial court judge sanctioned the trucking company and other defendants by striking their answer to the complaint. He also struck their counterclaim that the driver of the passenger vehicle negligently caused the accident.
The effect of these sanctions was to deprive the defendants of all of their defenses; it also established their liability. The defendants appealed the trial judge’s ruling.
When the Georgia Court of Appeals reviewed the case, it ruled to uphold the sanctions, saying there was ample evidence of the defendants stonewalling in the discovery process to justify the penalty imposed by the trial court judge.
In this case, justice was finally served.
Another Example: Car and Family Crushed By 40-Ton Truck
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 many invalid ‘reasons’ (excuses) given by the insurance carrier for why the truck and its driver were not really at-fault for the accident and their injuries. 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 $11,499,740.00 in damages to the victims.
The trucking company and its insurer appealed the jury’s verdict and presented the appellate court with even more excuses for why the jury’s decision should be thrown out. Those excuses included:
- The truck driver wasn’t really an employee of the company because the company was unable to find the driver’s employment file.
- The truck wasn’t really the “property” of the company because they were not sure when the lease agreement was actually signed.
- The trial judge gave the jury too much information.
- The judge did not give the jury enough information.
- The expert witness was not helpful to the trucking company.
- The judge abused his discretion by making a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs NOT the defendants.
In this case we see astonishing attempts—all unsuccessful—to change the verdict awarded by the Jury made up of your Georgia neighbors.
The Court of Appeals rejected the trucking company and its insurer’s arguments and explained that because the Department of Transportation issues licenses to trucking firms in order for them to operate and because 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. In addition, the truck had the company’s logo and DOT licensing information painted on the cab of the truck and was also loaded with freight under the care and protection of the company.
Official Employment Questioned
The fact that the driver was picking up and delivering freight while working for the parent company also indicates that the driver was acting on behalf of the company. This was difficult to prove however, 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 trucking company in question could not verify the dates upon which the lease agreement was finalized because the paperwork was “lost.” This led the court to conclude that the information in those files might have been harmful to the trucking company.
The jury was also instructed about the meaning of “spoliation of evidence.” Spoliation of evidence is the intentional, reckless, or negligent withholding, hiding, altering, fabricating, or destroying of evidence relevant to a legal proceeding. The jury was instructed to assume that the missing documents would have helped the plaintiff’s case.
In the end, the Appeals Court found conclusively that the laws of Georgia and the United States of America protected this unfortunate family.
We Fight Big Truck Insurance Companies
In our Georgia trucking accident and injury 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 anybody, then, to see that the deep-pocketed trucking companies and huge insurance companies pull out all the stops in order to keep from paying for the damages that have been caused by their drivers. The more devastating the injuries, the more inventive they become in attempting to justify the negligence.
At The Millar Law Firm, our experienced accident lawyers will help you secure the compensation you deserve and hold a negligent driver accountable for his or her negligence. Even when you’re facing a trucking company giant and a highly paid team of lawyers, we can help you get the financial compensation you deserve. Call us today for a free claim evaluation. 770-400-0000