Drive on any highway in America, and the chances are good that you will see at least one tractor trailer driving on the same stretch of highway. They are as ubiquitous as road signs. They may be called different things: big rigs, trucks, semis, tractor-trailers, but they all serve the same purpose: American commerce and industry. Without them, society would not be able to function properly. Fuel, freight, food, clothing, textiles, raw materials, parcels, and packages are just a few of the many items that depend on the trucking industry to get to and from various places across the country.
Most truck drivers operate their rigs safely and efficiently. Likewise, most truck owners keep their vehicles in top-notch condition, allowing them to travel many thousands of miles without a problem. There are exceptions, and sometimes an owner fails to inspect, maintain, and service his truck. When that happens, the consequences can be catastrophic.
Recently, a man was riding in a pickup truck on the highway when a drive shaft broke off from beneath a tractor-trailer in the oncoming lane. The 20pound metal shaft bounced off the road and crashed through the windshield of the pickup truck, striking the victim’s face and neck. He lost consciousness, and three hours later, he was dead. The victim’s estate and his survivors sued the owner of the tractor-trailer, alleging the failure to adequately inspect, maintain, and service the vehicle. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit presented evidence that the U-joint holding the drive shaft in place had melted because of insufficient lubrication, permitting the drive shaft to rip out of its yoke. The lawsuit alleged that the U-joint component had not been lubricated for at least four to six months before the incident. The lawsuit also alleged that the company’s fleet manager established an inadequate maintenance policy calling for the U-joint cross piece to be lubricated every 10,000 miles or two months–whichever was longer–even though the U-joint manufacturer recommended a lubrication interval of every 5,000 miles. At a deposition and at trial, the fleet manager testified that he had no expertise or special qualifications that would have enabled him to determine the proper lubrication interval and that he did no research to determine the manufacturer’s guidelines. The plaintiff’s contended that the president of the company that owned the truck knew that the fleet manager lacked the necessary qualifications but allowed him to proceed anyway. The plaintiffs offered evidence that during the year before the incident, a mechanic at the company knew about as many as 20 other U-joints in the fleet’s trucks that had failed because of inadequate lubrication. The plaintiffs contended that although the mechanic reported this to his supervisor, and the mechanic’s supervisor confirmed that the lubrication was inadequate, the company failed to conduct a general inspection of the entire fleet or establish an adequate lubrication policy.
The jury awarded $281 million, including $100 million in punitive damages. The plaintiffs voluntarily requested and received remittitur, also known as a reduction, in the amount of the punitive damages award to $4.5 million, which was the maximum allowed under Texas law, which is where the trial occurred. It is possible that the defense may ask the court to issue a new trial, or further lower the verdict, or grant judgment in the defendant’s favor. This case shows how something as simple as adequate lubrication of one part on a truck can cause major safety issues if it is not done properly.
At Stark & Stark, we represent people every day who have been injured in truck accidents and car accidents. We know what it takes to make sure your rights are protected, regardless of whether the defendant who caused the crash is a small local company or a multi-million-dollar corporation. I only represent injured people. I do not defend or represent insurance companies or defendants.