Butler Kahn recently settled a truck accident case against a large utility company for a confidential sum. We faced an uphill battle from the beginning of the case because both the police and the company blamed our client for the accident. A careful investigation, however, revealed that there had been an ongoing mechanical problem with the truck. Because the driver and his supervisor had repeatedly ignored a check-engine light and audible alarm, the bucket truck went into “limp mode,” meaning that the truck’s speed was electronically limited to 5 miles per hour. This “limp mode” or “de-rate” feature on the truck is tied to the presence of the check engine light and a fault code that had been ignored for far too long. When the problem related to the fault code(s) is not timely addressed, the truck will inevitably lose power.
Our client, who was driving at the speed limit of 65 miles per hour on the dark, rural highway at dawn, only had a few seconds to perceive and react to the truck’s unexpected low speed in the dark and was unable to avoid colliding with the back of the bucket truck. The collision caused serious personal injuries that required our client to be life-flighted from the scene and undergo emergency surgery, followed by months of difficult, painful rehabilitation.
Truck Accident Investigation
Our firm’s hard work paid off with several key breakthroughs in the case. First, we interviewed several witnesses who remembered seeing a broken-down bucket truck that appeared to be stopped in the roadway. One witness told us he himself had narrowly avoided hitting the bucket truck and almost lost control trying to swerve around it.
Since our client suffered a traumatic brain injury in the accident, he was unable to recall many details, making the task of interviewing witnesses even more important. We anticipated that the company would blame our client for the accident, so we ordered a forensic download of our client’s cell phone to rule out this potential distraction. The cell phone data confirmed that our client had not made or received any calls or text messages within several hours of the accident.
Next, we obtained dash camera footage from the officer who investigated the crash. It revealed that the officer was unable to get our client’s statement at the scene because paramedics were busy stabilizing our client’s shattered femur before he was life-flighted to the nearest Level 1 Trauma Center. The footage also showed that a company representative spoke with their employee before the employee who was driving the bucket truck gave his statement to the police. The employee proceeded to tell the officer that he was “just easing along” when our client rear-ended him but failed to mention any other details – such as the fact that he was driving on a major highway at dawn at four miles per hour. Based on his statement, the police blamed our client for the accident.
Our firm hired an accident reconstruction expert to inspect the bucket truck and our client’s pickup truck, including electronic data from the “black box” or “electronic data recorder (EDR).” This data established several key findings. First, it allowed our reconstruction expert to calculate the “delta-v,” or total change in vehicle velocity in the crash. The “delta-V” established that the bucket truck must have been either stopped or barely moving at the time of the collision. Second, the data showed our client braking approximately 1.5 seconds before impact. Our firm hired a “human factors” expert who explained that after factoring in the additional time that it would have taken our client to perceive and react accordingly, our client actually performed better than the majority of participants in scientific studies under similar circumstances. Third, the data from the bucket truck revealed several active “fault codes,” which indicated a mechanical problem with the truck that would have prompted the truck’s check engine light to turn on before the collision.
In addition to the electronic data, we found paper copies of inspection forms inside the bucket truck. The forms showed that on the morning of the collision, the driver had made the notation “CE” for the third consecutive day:
Also inside the bucket truck, the driver’s side visor provided a guide to the various warning lights. The visor guide included warnings not to operate the truck when certain warning lights and alarms were present:
Lawsuit Against the Trucking Company and the Insurance Company
Our most significant breakthroughs came after we filed a lawsuit against the electric company and its employee who was driving the bucket truck. We discovered that the bucket truck had been equipped with a dash camera that showed the employees cursing at the truck’s being limited to 5 miles per hour, remarking that “this thing is going to get us killed” as they continued to drive down the highway. Another motorist could also be seen swerving around the bucket truck, prompting the driver to exclaim, “that [expletive] almost hit us!” Throughout the entire footage, a loud beeping alarm could be heard.
We took depositions of the company’s corporate representatives and confronted them with this evidence. We presented the connection between the beeping alarm, check engine light, and the corresponding guide on the truck’s visor. We asked tough questions of the corporate representatives, who all denied knowing that the truck would not go faster than 5 miles per hour because of the maintenance issue. The company’s safety director testified that “what we would have preferred is obviously for [the employee] to pull over,” but still denied that the employee’s conduct was unsafe. The safety director also explained how the company’s driver training course was optional for its employees to operate its trucks. Corporate management left that option up to the discretion of individual supervisors, who in this case never required this employee to complete the driver training.
Only after those depositions did the company finally produce an internal document that warned employees specifically not to ignore the very same “check engine” warnings that were active at the time of the collision. Although the corporate lawyers claimed they had produced this document earlier, we suspected from our past experience dealing with difficult corporate defendants that the company was attempting to hide this damaging evidence. This document, which the driver later testified he had never seen, stated that ignoring these warnings could not only result in the truck’s speed being limited, but could also cause an accident.
We then took the deposition of the employee who was driving the bucket truck at the time of the collision. The driver, who had since left the company, admitted that he did not feel comfortable driving the truck in this situation. He explained that on the morning of the collision, he noticed an “extra light” on the truck’s instrument panel, so he notified his supervisor. Instead of requesting a repair or asking Mr. Edwards to drive a different truck, however, the supervisor told the driver to drive the truck down the highway to see if the problem would just go away. In other words, the reckless decision to deliberately ignore the problem and drive the truck on a 65-mile-per-hour highway at dawn in a rural, poorly illuminated area was made not only by the truck’s driver but by his supervisor at the electric company.
The company was forbidden by law from operating the truck in a condition that was likely to cause an accident or breakdown. It was also required to repair the problem with the truck before requiring or permitting its employees to drive the truck, and then certify on the vehicle inspection report that the problem had been repaired or that repairs were unnecessary. Rather than call a mechanic or use a different truck, the company’s employees recklessly disregarded the rules that are intended to keep motorists safe.
Despite the systemic failures in the company’s management that led to this preventable crash, the company continued to blame our client for not avoiding the collision. We hired an expert in human factors to address what we already suspected to be true—that a motorist approaching from the rear would reasonably assume that the bucket truck was traveling at normal highway speeds, and by the time our client could perceive that the bucket truck was moving at an extremely slow rate of speed, it was too late for him to stop. Presented with all the evidence, in this case, the human factors expert concluded the earliest he would have realized the bucket truck was moving so slowly was approximately 2.8 seconds before impact, at which point our client was just over 250 feet from the bucket truck.
Truck Accident Settlement
This case was settled after months of litigation for a confidential sum with which our client was satisfied. The electric company initially rejected our offer to settle the case for two million dollars, but later agreed to mediation before proceeding with numerous expert depositions and trial. Butler Kahn worked alongside the attorneys at Mabra Law to secure this result for a deserving client.
1 – See 49 C.F.R. § 396.7(a).
2 – See 49 C.F.R. § 396.11(a)(3).