Heyl Royster

 


Heyl Royster

 

The Impact of COVID-19 on Juries in Trucking Litigation

By: Joe Rust, jrust@heylroyster.com

There is no doubt COVID-19 has substantially affected all aspects of our lives. Whether it be how we work, shop, or socialize, while we all have been affected by COVID-19, each of us understandably experienced the pandemic differently. As attorneys, we continue to monitor whether the impact of COVID-19 has carried over to juries in civil trials. The trucking industry is one that can be poised to take advantage of the potential changes in jurors’ attitudes and opinions.

Prior to the pandemic, jury verdicts for crashes involving a semi-truck were skyrocketing. According to data analyzed by the American Transportation Research Institute, jury awards over the last decade have increased nearly 1000%.1 Their data looking at a period from 2010-2018 found the average verdict size for a lawsuit awarding above $1 million rose from $2.3 million to $22.3 million. Unfortunately, one-off nuclear verdicts against truckers may never go away, and over the past year, we have still seen several massive awards.

In 2020, a Florida jury awarded an injured motorcyclist $411 million in damages. The case derives from a 2018 accident. Severe weather caused visibility issues for motorists. When a semi-truck attempted to avoid an accident, he jackknifed across the road that led to a 45-car pile-up. The jury trial was conducted virtually over Zoom, with jurors doling out the massive award from the confines of their own homes.

In Illinois, a woman who was rear-ended by a truck five years ago was awarded $43.5 million in damages in the first in-person civil trial held in Cook County since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

A Texas jury awarded more than $352 million to the family of a former United Airlines employee who was paralyzed when a van driver struck him from behind on an airport tarmac. In September 2019, a 50-year-old man had on a bright yellow vest and was holding bright orange wands while working his wing walker job at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. A driver for Allied Aviation Fueling Company of Houston struck the plaintiff from behind with his van, which ultimately left him paralyzed from the waist down. Following a two-week trial and two days of deliberations, the jury awarded the family $352.7 million, one of the largest awards ever handed down in Harris County, Texas.

In an even more frightening verdict, another Florida jury awarded the family of an 18-year-old killed in a wreck with two trucking companies a whopping $1 billion. The case derived from an accident in 2017, wherein an 18-year-old college student was sitting in his car waiting for a separate wreck to be cleared on Interstate 95 in Florida, when a rig slammed into a parked line of cars behind the initial wreck, pancaking the decedent’s sedan. He was killed instantly. While the $1 billion verdict was mostly symbolic as the main trucking company-defendant is no longer in business and the family will likely never collect $1 billion, it still presents an alarming warning for truckers and how far a jury will go to punish the trucking industry.

A Titus County, Texas jury awarded $730 million following the death of a 73-year-old great-grandmother in November 2021. The accident involved an oversized cargo truck hauling a propeller for a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine. The 73-year-old great-grandmother was traveling in a portion of the opposite lane when the impact occurred on a narrow bridge. The jury awarded $480 million in compensatory damages for the surviving family members and $250 million in punitive damages.

Since the pandemic began, we have seen an upward trend in the positive feelings and biases towards truckers, which could help curtail these nuclear verdicts if sustainable. During the pandemic, the trucking industry regained the essential status it once had in the eyes of the public –– commercial drivers kept shelves stocked, delivered essential medical supplies, and over the past several months have been indispensable in the role out of COVID-19 vaccines. The trucking industry will need to maintain this momentum moving forward. Public perception will be vital in overcoming recent litigation tactics, such as the Reptile Theory, that have led to nuclear verdicts. The question is whether the goodwill of the trucking industry will have a material impact in a case that has nuclear verdict potential moving forward.  

So, how do we maximize public perception about the trucking industry in light of COVID-19? While we do not yet know whether the decreased bias against truckers has affected jury deliberations on a large scale, we can employ a few practical tips to ensure goodwill makes its way to those twelve individuals on the jury.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly caused economic burden, financial losses, as well as emotional stresses such as anxiety, paranoia, and depression on the American people. These financial and emotional stresses experienced by jurors due to the pandemic may alter their opinions about a damage award and their opinions about claims for damages. For example, a juror who has suffered recent financial hardship might have much less sympathy for someone asking for an excessive economic award. However, we also need to be aware of some jurors’ willingness to throw millions of dollars at a plaintiff.  There are jurors who have truly lost sight of the value of money. They look at the trillions of dollars spent by the US government during the pandemic and think that several million dollars is not a particularly large sum of money.

We can expect jurors to have shifting attitudes and opinions in sympathy or indifference towards others who have suffered an economic loss; praise for frontline workers; support for small businesses; trust or distrust of government; and trust or distrust of science. As a result, we need to flesh out these attitudes early during jury selection.  Voir dire is critical to weed out jurors who may be willing to award sums of money grossly disproportionate to the real value of the case.

Finally, jurors may have a change in perception about stricter adherence to rules and minimalized tolerance for rule-breaking. Most likely, this will be particularly challenging for heavily regulated industries like trucking. While this issue can be explored during jury selection, the industry can avoid this altogether by ensuring regulatory compliance beforehand.

The trucking industry needs to adapt to these changes in juror perceptions by assessing COVID-19’s impact on jurors and how it may affect a potential verdict. The trucking industry needs to stay ahead of the curve, taking advantage of and anticipating further changes in public perception. Our collective job is to assist in changing the narrative about the trucking industry. Further, it is incumbent upon us as your counsel to be proactive in assessing potential nuclear verdict issues early on in the accident investigation. If the case may go to trial, we need to consider engaging a good trial/jury consultant to assist in deposition preparation of key company representatives as well as assist with trial-related issues.  



1“New Research Documents the Scale of Nuclear Verdicts in the Trucking Industry”, American Transportation Research Institute, Arlington, VA, 2020, https://truckingresearch.org/2020/06/23/new-research-documents-the-scale-of-nuclear-verdicts-in-the-trucking-industry/ (accessed 7/13/21).