Recently a jury awarded $89.6 million dollars to the plaintiff in a civil case over an accident in which two people suffered brain injuries, one child a quadriplegic and one dead. The troopers at the accident declined to ticket the truck driver as they felt he was not at fault. The driver of the pick up truck lost control, crossed the median and was then struck by the Werner Enterprises truck going the opposite direction. Later a law suit was filed against Werner for unsafe practices. The lawyer representing the plaintiff argued that Werner demonstrated “systematic disregard for safety and training policies”. So how did the jury come to the decision to levy such a judgement against Werner if the troopers on scene did not find the driver at fault?
To begin you have to understand the merits of the case were not argued solely on the incident cited. The law firm in question argued that Werner not only neglected safety in this instance, but had a culture of neglecting safety. The argument was that due to black ice conditions the Werner driver should not have been on the road at all according to the drivers manual in over 40 states. These states instruct drivers to slow down and find a safe place to park and wait for road conditions to improve. They showed the driver was traveling over 60 MPH in these conditions and was traveling over 50 MPH at the time of the incident. To make matters worse other Werner employees testified that the driver was not allowed to use a C.B radio or external temperature gauge. When the National Weather Service issued an update on the winter storm informing of freezing rain the company never relayed the message to the truck.
To make matters worse this was a student driver who had a trainer with him. Due to this being an expedited, just-in-time load the driver trainer was not in the front seat with the student driver, leaving him unsupervised. As any driver trainer can tell you many companies utilize the truck as a team truck forcing one to sleep while the other drives. The argument went on to claim if the student driver had parked the truck like the states drivers manuals instruct, or had slowed down significantly he would have not been where he was when the pick up lost control and crossed the median.
Now, this is not the first settlement Werner has had to pay out ( to be fair this one isn’t paid and likely will not be until the case is appealed. ). Other companies that hire and train a lot of student drivers are dubbed “driver mills” by many in the industry because they go through so many students. Not to mention the amount of property damage they cause, injury and death to others. These companies include names like Swift, PAM, CRST, CR England and many others. Everyone in the industry knows the student drivers they put on the road are severely under trained and a safety hazard to us all.
The FMCSA assembled a group to address training standards and what they came up with was an absolute joke and maintained the same level of unsafe behavior by these companies as before. It was so bad that some experienced drivers left the panel once they realized how absurd it had become. What the general public doesn’t realize is the FMCSA does very little to improve safety, despite safety being their primary oversight responsibility and these driver mill companies turn drivers loose with only three weeks training behind the wheel. Most of that time they were unsupervised as their trainer had to sleep due to the truck being utilized as a team truck.
These practices are grossly unsafe to everybody, but they persist favoring profit over safety to the motoring public. Other companies have had their share of multi-million dollar settlements over unsafe behavior. Celadon told their drivers to use cruise control as much as possible regardless of weather conditions to save on fuel. A driver lost control in a snow storm, hit a passenger vehicle causing death and permanent injury. The driver admitted to law enforcement that he was using cruise per company directive. That settlement was what it took for Celadon to change their practices. Prior to that they didn’t care about the dangers involved, only the few gallons of fuel they might save.
All through the industry companies and drivers struggle with image. Hollywood and the media have portrayed truckers as irresponsible and reckless unproffesionals. The more this image persists the harder it becomes to find people willing to get into trucking. Drivers want treated as a proffesional by the trucking companies, yet many try to avoid being proffesional. To change the image the industry has and to get the all around treatment a proffessional rates things must change in both camps. Drivers have to take responsiblity for the truck and make judgment calls on what is safe and not safe, refusing what is not. There are more jobs than drivers, if you are fired for refusing to be unsafe you will have a job by the end of the week.
The companies need to invest more in training. They need to be much more selective of who they elevate to driver trainer status and then train them to be trainers. Selecting someone who has 4 months experience trucking without wrecking is not a suitable candidate to be a trainer. The training standards for student drivers needs to be longer than three weeks and much more stringent than it is now.
Due to the FMCSA, Congress and these training companies failing to do what is prudent and responsible it is now sadly the courts influence that is needed to bring about change. Some say this award against Werner Enterprises is extreme and without merit. I say just the opposite. These companies know what they are doing and will not stop these unsafe practices until the monetary punishment is so severe that they have no choice but to change their behavior. Regardless of how the appeals process plays out we can only hope that these big box driver training companies are swayed into reforming their practices to avoid similar law suits.