4 Min ReadMarch 5, 2024

How to Protect Truck Fleets From a "Nuclear Verdict"

truck at night

So-called nuclear verdicts — those that award a plaintiff over $10 million — seem to have become commonplace in the trucking industry. Trucking seems like an easy target and plaintiff’s attorneys are pursuing large punitive damage awards by attempting to demonstrate that a fleet is indifferent to safety or is putting profits before safety.

How bad is the problem? According to Roadblock: The Trucking Litigation Problem and How to Fix It study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, from June 2020 to April 2023 the mean award for plaintiffs’ verdicts was $31,862,776. Yes, you read that right.

While there isn’t much fleets can do to stop plaintiff’s attorneys from seeking these astronomical awards, there are ways they can help reduce the number of accidents that lead to these court cases.

Plaintiff’s attorneys, armed with the names of fleets that have invested in safety systems, are using the fact that the fleet involved in the accident didn’t invest in safety technology as a sign of their indifference to safety.

Dealers can help fleets protect themselves by working closely with them during the vehicle specification process and encouraging them to keep their equipment properly maintained. Here are driver assistance and safety features that dealers should be discussing with their customers. They’re not just an upsell. In fact, many of your customers will be familiar with these features from passenger cars.

  • Forward-collision warning systems: These systems use sensors to detect when the truck is too close to the vehicle in front of it. The system gives a series of audible and visual alerts to warn the driver so they can take action. If the driver fails to heed the warnings, the system automatically initiates braking to stop the vehicle and avoid a collision.
  • Automatic emergency braking: This technology uses forward-facing cameras and sensors to automatically apply the brakes when a crash is imminent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have proposed a rule to mandate automatic emergency braking on all trucks over 10,000 pounds. (And it’s already standard on nearly every passenger car for the 2024 model year.)
  • Lane-departure warning systems: These camera-based sensors track lane markings. If the truck drifts out of the lane (without the driver activating the turn signal) the system issues an audible alert designed to get the driver’s attention so they can take corrective action and get back into their lane.
  • Blind-spot warning systems: Blind spots are a significant issue for truckers and can prevent them from seeing pedestrians, cars and bicycles. These systems detect objects in the truck’s blind spot and warn the driver about the presence of an object.
  • Adaptive cruise control: This system uses forward-facing sensors to monitor traffic conditions in front of the truck. With cruise control activated, it automatically uses the throttle and brakes to keep the truck a preset safe distance from the vehicle in front of it.
  • Driver-facing cameras: These cameras can be used to monitor driver behavior and detect unwanted behavior such as distracted driving. This information allows fleet managers to coach drivers on safer driving behavior. It also can be useful for capturing exactly what happened leading up to and following an accident or hard braking event.

Beyond advising fleets about the various safety systems they can spec on their vehicles, dealers need to work closely with fleets to develop maintenance schedules for the vehicles and a system for tracking maintenance compliance. Dealers also can review pre- and post-trip inspection forms and procedures with fleets to ensure inspections flow in a logical manner and contain not only Department of Transportation-mandated checks but also additional items that have posed problems for the fleet in the past. Detailed maintenance records can be valuable to a fleet and demonstrate the fleet’s commitment to operating in a safe manner.

Dealers also can talk to their customers about their hiring practices and driver safety training programs. Encourage fleets to thoroughly investigate potential new hires and make sure they’re checking the Department of Transportation’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse. This is an online database that gives employers real-time access to information about CDL driver drug and alcohol program violations.

Dealers may want to encourage fleets to establish a relationship with a law firm that has experience in the trucking industry and understands trucking law as well as federal and state trucking regulations.

The best prevention from a nuclear verdict is to avoid accidents. There’s no one action fleets can take to prevent all accidents. However, dealers can work with fleets to help them spec trucks with the latest safety systems and work with them to develop maintenance and inspection procedures that focus on ensuring that those safety systems as well as other basic safety-related items — tires, lights, anti-lock braking system (ABS) sensors — are in top operating condition.

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CDK Global Heavy Truck
By CDK Global Heavy Truck

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