Our firm recently settled a truck accident case for $2 million, the full insurance limits. The trucking company and insurance company fought with us about who was at fault for the wreck, claiming that our client was to blame. They also fought about whether the wreck caused Mr. James’s death, claiming that since he died ten months after the crash, his death had other causes. But with a thorough investigation, an aggressive workup, and carefully-planned depositions, we were able to collect the full insurance policy limits for our client long before trial.
Details follow, although some names and places have been changed.
On the night of October 1, 2019, Mr. Otto James, an 83-year-old man, was headed home after his nightly meal and coffee at Waffle House in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Mr. James only had one eye, but he was a fully licensed driver.
Mr. James was driving north on Scenic Hwy N. At the same time, a driver operating a tractor-trailer for Evans Delivery Company, Inc. and ENC Holding Corporation, Peter Rogers, was illegally backing the tractor-trailer across Scenic Hwy N in order to park it.
The tractor-trailer (painted a dark red) was blocking at least both northbound lanes, the center turn lane, and the right shoulder of the road.
A photo of the trailer (illuminated by numerous emergency vehicles) follows.
Because Mr. James was unable to see the dark trailer in time, he crashed into the side of the trailer, sustaining serious, and ultimately fatal, injuries.
A diagram of the accident is below.
Georgia’s Rules of The Road Apply to Tractor-Trailer Drivers
The night of Mr. James’ fatal accident Evans’ driver acted like the rules of the road did not apply to him because he had the biggest vehicle on the road. However, Georgia’s rules of the road apply to every vehicle on the road. See O.C.G.A. § 40-6-1(a). The police officer who investigated the wreck gave Mr. Rogers a ticket for violating Georgia’s laws on illegal backing (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-240) and illegal stopping (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-203).
During his deposition, Mr. Rogers admitted that he committed the traffic offense of improper backing. Mr. Rogers also admitted that he forfeited his bond as to both citations. Importantly, in Georgia, a bond forfeiture constitutes an admission of guilt. Highsmith v. Tractor Trailer Svc., No. 2:04-CV-164, 2005 WL 6032882, at *6-8 (May 13, 2010). Finally, even though he refused to accept any responsibility for the accident, Mr. Rogers admitted that Mr. James had the right-of-way at the time of the accident.
Nevertheless, Evans Delivery Company and ENC Corporation continued to deny that they were responsible for Mr. James’ death.
The Trucking Company Could Have Prevented the Truck Accident
The corporate representative for Evans Delivery Company and ENC Corporation, Michael Evans, testified that Mr. Rogers was operating his truck on behalf of Evans at the time off the accident. In Georgia, when a person is working for a company or another person, and is acting within the course and scope of his or her employment, then the company or employer is responsible for the negligent or reckless acts of the person.
Mr. Rogers testified that he was backing his truck on the night of the accident to park it. Mr. Rogers also testified that his supervisor at Evans Delivery Company knew where he was parking his truck. Even though Evans knew that Mr. Rogers was parking his truck in an unsafe location, Evans Delivery Company and ENC Corporation did not provide Mr. Rogers a safe place to park his truck. Mr. Evans (the corporate representative for Evans) testified that Evans and its networks of companies had numerous places where Mr. Rogers could have safely parked his truck.
Despite all of this, Evans Delivery Company and ENC Corporation still continued to deny that they were responsible for Mr. James’ death.
Expert Testimony Shows that Mr. James Did Not Cause the Accident
To help prove the case, BLF hired a number of experts, including a trucking industry expert, an accident reconstructionist, and a human factors expert. All three concluded that Mr. James did nothing wrong.
BLF’s trucking industry expert concluded that, “[Evans’ driver’s] ill-advised backing maneuver unreasonably positioned the involved CMV [commercial motor vehicle] while obstructing multiple approaching motorists’ travel lanes, resulting in impeding the right-of-way.” Because Mr. James had the right-of-way, the responsibility for causing this collision falls squarely on Evans’ driver.
But even if Mr. James had been obligated under Georgia law to stop his pickup truck and allow Evans’ driver to back across the highway (and he had no such obligation), stopping would not have been possible.
BLF’s accident reconstructionist evaluated this collision and headlight testing data and concluded that “[i]t is not likely that under the circumstances listed in the testing that [Mr. James] could have stopped in order to avoid the collision.”
BLF’s human factors expert reached a similar conclusion. The expert opined that the visual picture that was presented to Mr. James was “perceptually ambiguous” because the tractor-trailer’s headlights were pointed in his direction as though the tractor-trailer was in the southbound lane. In other words, it was reasonable for Mr. James to see the headlights and believe they were coming from the other direction. BLF’s human factors expert concluded that although Mr. James was older and only had one eye, his “response to the hazardous obstruction was comparable to recognition distances predicted for normally alert, unimpaired drivers.”
Proving that the Truck Accident Caused the Wrongful Death
We initially filed this case as personal injury case on behalf of Mr. James. Tragically, ten months after the accident, Mr. James passed away as a result of the injuries he suffered in the accident. That changed the case from a personal injury case to a wrongful death case.
We filed an amended complaint with the Court reflecting the change. Because of Mr. James’ age and the time between the accident and his death, Butler Kahn knew that Evans Delivery Company and ENC Corporation would challenge any claim that the accident caused Mr. James’ death.
BLF hired two medical experts to show that the accident caused Mr. James’ death. The two experts — a medical examiner and a geriatrician — reviewed Mr. James’ medical records and concluded that the truck accident caused the progression which caused Mr. James’ death.
This testimony was important in settling the case.
Truck Accident Investigation & Punitive Damages
The thoroughness of our investigation took the trucking company and insurance company by surprise.
We obtained the 911 recordings made immediately after this collision. During the recording of the truck driver talking to the 911 operator, we could hear something strange – a high-pitched squeal. We heard the same sound on another recording of a different witness talking with the 911 operator. In that second recording, just after the high-pitched squeal, we heard the witness tell the 911 operator that another person had nearly hit the tractor trailer. We found that witness and interviewed her. Sure enough, not long after Mr. James struck the tractor trailer and left his taillights sticking out from underneath it, another driver still almost crashed into the trailer, and had to slam on their brakes hard enough to make the tires squeal. That helped us prove that the tractor-trailer was hard to see that night.
Even more importantly, we learned that even after this collision – that is, even after the serious injuries to Mr. James, and even after getting a ticket for illegal backing from the police officer – the Evans Delivery truck driver kept backing his tractor-trailer across the highway. When we cross-examined the trucking company’s safety director, we showed him eight photographs and one video (shown below) proving that the truck driver kept backing his tractor and trailer across the highway, and continued to put other drivers in danger, even after he saw what happened to our client.
That evidence was important. When the evidence shows that a defendant did not care about what happened – or in the language of the law, shows “conscious indifference to the consequences” – then a jury is authorized to impose punitive damages. The evidence that we gathered put Evans Delivery Company at risk of a verdict for punitive damages because it showed that the company did not care about the danger that it created. That is one of the reasons that the trucking company and the insurance company decided to settle the case for their insurance policy limits before trial.
Trucking Company Finally Accepts Responsibility
Roughly fourteen months after Mr. James’ accident, Butler Kahn sent a policy-limits demand to Evans Delivery Company and ENC Corporation explaining why Evans was responsible for Mr. James’ death. Evans Delivery Company and ENC Corporation accepted the policy-limit demand within two-and-a-half weeks.
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, trucking companies often refuse to negotiate until you prove your case.
When you or someone you love are involved in a trucking accident, time is of the essence. Almost as soon as a crash occurs, the trucking company will have investigators on the scene looking for ways to blame the accident on someone else. In other words, the trucking company and its insurer will start planning their litigation strategy immediately.
Your lawyer should too. That is why trucking accidents need trucking attorneys. The truck companies and their insurers will be ready for a long, hard-fought battle. If your lawyer isn’t willing to go the distance, you could end up settling your case for less than it is worth. Trucking litigation is no place for the quick-and-easy settlement lawyers who advertise on billboards and daytime TV. You need a law firm that doesn’t mind a good fight.