Tires screeched as a Freightliner truck approached a curve on Ga Hwy 246 just before the North Carolina state line. The Freightliner—owned and operated by a “fly-by-night” moving company—was overloaded. The truck started to flip and the front passenger was thrown out of the truck and through the air. The truck and the passenger’s body skidded across the roadway before coming to a rest in a ravine. Bloodied and broken, the passenger laid in the ditch until he was air-lifted to the closest hospital.
The passenger hired Butler Kahn to pursue a case against the driver and the fly-by-night moving company who caused the wreck. Jeb Butler, Graham Roberts, and Steph Bowen handled the case. The case concluded with a truck accident settlement of $750,000, which constituted all of the available insurance policy limits.
Dangerous Practices of Fly-by-Night Trucking Companies
Moving is a stressful and expensive process. “Fly-by-night” moving companies often take advantage of unwitting customers by offering reduced costs and supposedly superior service. Yet they fail to deliver on their promises and regularly hold customers’ goods hostage until a surcharge is paid. More importantly, these fly-by-night movers often put their own employees and other people in danger. They routinely hire unqualified drivers, fail to maintain or inspect their vehicles, don’t train their drivers, and overload their trucks.
The shady practices of fly-by-night moving and trucking companies cause millions of dollars in damage a year. This company’s negligence led to our client’s death.
The Truck Accident
Our client—the passenger—was a friendly 23-year-old young man with a full life ahead of him that was tragically cut short by the shady practices of a fly-by-night moving company. Our client was hired as an independent contractor by a “shell” company in June 2020. In an effort to complete the move in one trip and increase its profit, the moving company overloaded the truck in which our client was a passenger. The moving company and its driver knew that the truck would be traveling winding, mountain roads, but chose to overload the truck, regardless of the danger.
Butler Kahn hired an accident reconstructionist to determine if inadequate maintenance contributed to the wreck. BLF’s accident reconstructionist inspected the truck and noticed that the front brakes were in a bad condition. The accident reconstructionist further concluded that the bad front brakes could have caused the truck to pull to right under hard braking. This expert testimony showed that the fly-by-night trucking operation that owned the truck had failed to keep it in good condition, and that failure contributed to our client’s injuries and ultimate death.
The driver of the truck knew that the truck was overloaded, but still drove too fast around a tight curve in a mountain road. Because the truck was overloaded and the driver was going too fast, the truck started to flip over. The investigating police officer later cited the truck driver with failure to maintain lane and driving too fast for conditions in violation of Georgia’s Rules of the Road. See O.C.G.A. §§ 40-6-48, 40-6-180. As the truck flipped, our client was thrown out of the truck and launched through the air. He landed in a ravine next to the roadway.
Our client would never recover. A few months after the collision, he passed away.
Shadow LLCs and Finding Truck Company Insurance
While it was clear that the truck driver negligently operated the truck, it was hard to tell what company or companies were liable for the truck driver’s negligence. The motor vehicle accident report listed “Universal Moving Services” as the owner of the truck. However, a bill of lading found in the debris of the cab of the truck listed two different companies. Further, the U.S. Department of Transportation number assigned to the truck listed a fourth company. After additional investigation, Butler Kahn determined that seven different companies—many of which were “shell” companies and used similar, fictitious names, from “Smooth Movers” to “Packing Bees”—were responsible for our client’s death. Ultimately, Butler Kahn located the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack—an insurance policy that covered the wreck.
Tracking down fly-by-night moving companies was no easy task. The search started with the police report and the markings on the truck. However, it quickly became apparent that there was a shell operation designed to “hide the ball.” Butler Kahn searched Secretary of State records, tapped into numerous databases such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s SAFER System, submitted open records requests, and ran multiple background checks on the suspected owners of the various companies. By cross-referencing the records and data obtained, Butler Kahn was able to determine that three brothers and their dad from Florida were behind the scheme to set up multiple entities in multiple states to advertise their moving services. From there, Butler Kahn was able to “connect the dots” to identify which companies would be held liable for the death of our client.
Armed with undisputed facts and law, Graham Roberts and Butler Kahn filed suit on December 2, 2020 against nine different companies and people. We sued Adept Moving and Storage LLC d/b/a Fresh Start Moving, Universal Moving Services LLC, Packing Bees Movers LLC d/b/a Accurate Movers, United Moving Services LLC d/b/a One Shot Move, One Shot Move LLC, Smooth Movers LLC d/b/a Universal Moving, Trullia Relocation Services, Inc., the driver of the truck, and the insurer of the truck.
Avoiding the Worker’s Compensation Bar to Recovery
First, we had to make sure that we would be allowed to bring the case at all. Like most states, Georgia has a “Worker’s Compensation Act” that prevents employees for suing their employers for injuries that they suffer on the job – instead of suing “in tort,” like most people can, employees have to make their claims in the worker’s compensation system. Employers prefer the worker’s compensation system, because they can usually get away with paying less in the worker’s compensation system. But that isn’t what we wanted for our client.
We dug deep into the law and court decisions, gathered documentary evidence, interviewed former coworkers, and applied the framework of the definitive legal treatise on the issue, Kissiah & Lay’s Worker’s Compensation Law in Georgia, to prove that our client was an independent contractor. That was a big deal because as an independent contractor, our client was not required to file a worker’s compensation claim – instead, we could file his tort case in what we call “real court,” which would allow our client to make a larger monetary recovery. Our work paid off – we were able to sue “in tort” and win a larger trucking settlement for our client than would have been possible in the worker’s compensation system.
Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Tragically, on December 31, 2020, our client passed away as a result of the progression from the wreck. From that day forward, Butler Kahn pursued a wrongful death case on behalf of the client’s family and estate.
In addition to evidence showing the relationship between the seven companies, Butler Kahn gathered evidence which demonstrated that the moving companies were vicariously liable for the driver’s negligent conduct and that they negligently entrusted the truck to the driver and sent him on a needlessly dangerous route through the North Georgia mountains. Moreover, the firm obtained evidence that showing the driver forfeited his bond as to the violation of basic rules. Importantly, in Georgia, a bond forfeiture is an admission of guilt. Highsmith v. Tractor Trailer Svc., No. 2:04-CV-164, 2005 WL 6032882, at *6-8 (N.D. Ga. May 13, 2010). Roughly six months after the wreck, and less than one month after our client’s tragic death, Butler Kahn sent a demand for the remaining trucking insurance policy limits to the moving companies. The moving companies accepted the demand and sent the check.
This case is an example of why you need an experienced trucking attorney to handle your wrongful death trucking case. Even when fault and liability are clear, shady businesses often cut corners, hide insurance, and conceal themselves behind shadow companies in an effort of avoid responsibility.