A dramatic rise in traffic fatalities involving big trucks has helped foster a new class of trial attorneys who specialize in crashes involving heavy trucks.
Some of the top legal experts in the field worked for almost three years to establish the first board certification in truck-accident law. They say it lets lawyers put trucking-industry knowledge and legal experience ahead of unsubstantiated claims of expertise made in big-budget advertisements. This helps establish competency and attract clients. And they expect it to help raise the bar on trucking safety.
“The goal here is at the end of the day to advance the safety-and-compliance ball,” said trial attorney Joe Fried of Atlanta, among the first to earn the American Bar Association-sanctioned specialty designation. “If we can prevent some of the wrecks that are out there, that’s good for the industry, that’s good for truck drivers, and it’s good for everybody else.”
That’s a goal shared by the trucking industry as well, especially as the number of fatalities as a result of large truck crashes continues to grow. Crashes involving trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 10,000 pounds killed 4,761 people in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
That is a 9 percent increase over the prior year and includes 1,300 truck driver deaths. Tractor trailers involved in fatal crashes increased by 5.8 percent from 2016 to 2017. Single-unit straight trucks involved in fatal crashes climbed 18.7 percent, the agency said.
Truck accident attorneys and trucking companies may be traditional adversaries, but improving truck safety is a common aim, both sides say.
“Those attorneys who specialize in large-truck litigation play a pivotal role in applying pressure on the industry to improve its safety performance,” said Lane Kidd, executive director of the Trucking Alliance in Washington, D.C., and a former president of the Arkansas Trucking Association.
The Trucking Alliance recently called for the diverse players in trucking to work together on safety reforms.
Of course, trial attorneys and trucking companies and their advocates still have serious differences. The trucking industry is viewed as a “cash cow” by plaintiff attorneys, said Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs for the Western States Trucking Association.
“You don’t have to look any further than all the negative advertising trolling for so-called victims from truck-involved crashes,” Rajkovacz said.
Having a certification process can have both upsides and downsides, he said.
“There are attorneys who specialize in defending motor carriers in litigation, and I can see this as a way for motor carriers seeking legal counsel to be much more able to select an attorney who isn’t going to bill them to death while learning the regulations governing the industry,” Rajkovacz said.
Tort reform is one area of conflict between the trial attorneys and the trucking industry.
Kidd said he approached the trial lawyers group, American Association for Justice (AAJ), several years ago about working together on trucking-safety issues. But his request also included tort reform.
Tort reform typically refers to creating new state laws that limit damage awards by juries in personal-injury lawsuits and cap fees for attorneys on the plaintiffs’ side. Trial lawyers back safety reforms but want to keep current legal remedies.
“We will work with anybody that wants to work with us — we want to reduce accidents; we want to make sure people are safe — but really the best way to do tort reform is to just eliminate the accident, then you actually eliminate the tort,” said Sue Steinman, senior director of policy at AAJ.
Frivolous lawsuits and so-called “nuclear jury verdicts” — in which a plaintiff is awarded seemingly outsized financial compensation in a personal-injury or death lawsuit — are also areas of contention.
But weeding out the bad apples or the incompetent among their own ranks is on the agenda of both the trucking industry and truck-accident lawyers.
Lawyers who know what they are doing, for example, don’t file frivolous lawsuits, Fried said.
And nuclear verdicts in truck-accident cases have attracted the attention of more than worried trucking company and insurance executives.
More trial lawyers are taking note and want to enter into this specialty area, but not all of them are qualified to handle its intricacies, according to Michael Leizerman of Leizerman & Associates in Toledo, Ohio.
“What a lot of people might not realize is, when you see some of the huge trucking verdicts, it’s a minority of the cases,” said Leizerman, the author of the three-volume “Litigating Truck Accident Cases,” from AAJ Press and Thomson Reuters.
“There is usually a very good reason why” large damages are awarded, he said. “There is a truck company that’s just the worst of the worst.”
That was the scenario in one of his lawsuits, which ended in 2012 with $5.2 million in punitive damages award to the family of a man killed by a tractor trailer. The driver was falling asleep at the wheel of a truck after being high on crystal methamphetamine, Leizerman said. The truck was not insured, and the company did no pre-employment drug test, he said.
Such large verdicts entice attorneys into truck-crash litigation, he said, although most don’t realize the amount of time and energy that goes into the cases. He never runs more than a dozen truck lawsuits at a time, and even then feels pressured. Attorneys at high-volume personal-injury firms, by contrast, might handle 100 cases at a time, he said.
The new board certification in truck accident law is meant to be an objective, verifiable credential for the most experienced among the growing number of attorneys who call themselves specialists in truck-accident law, Leizerman said. Just 17 attorneys have earned the certification so far.
The board certification includes two three-hour tests held on a single day. The knowledge examination includes questions based on hypothetical cases and fact patterns. It requires knowledge of evidence, ethics and truck-accident law, according to the National Board of Trial Advocacy.
The second part of the certification process measures experience. Attorneys earn points for hands-on experience with truck-accident cases, including time spent taking depositions and writing briefs, among other requirements.
Increased professionalism should help all, Leizerman said.
“At some level we are always going to be adversaries, but I believe the best trucking companies, just like the best plaintiffs’ lawyers, do look at the tragedy that happens and look for a way to make something positive come out of it,” he said. “It’s not just money changing hands.”