On October 3, 2008, seven young men tragically died in a fiery crash of a van on an Alabama highway. The van’s driver was transporting six job applicants for training, and as the van was approaching a curve, two 18-wheelers were approaching from the opposite direction. One of the 18-wheelers, owned by Lewis Trucking Company, was improperly passing another 18-wheeler in a no-passing zone, resulting in a head-on collision between the van and the Lewis vehicle. The collision and the subsequent fire resulted in the tragic deaths of all seven occupants of the van.
After reaching a settlement, on a pro tanto basis, with the two trucking companies, we pursued the remaining claim against American Timber and Steel (ATS). Lewis Trucking had been hired by ATS to transport a load of timber from Texas to Florida, When getting ready to send the load to Florida, ATS set a very low fee of $2,000 to transport the load. Following ATS internal protocol, the company sent it’s notice of the type of load to be transported and the proposed fee to the trucking companies that ATS normally used. None of those trucking companies accepted the load at that price.
The notice of the load and the fee paid to transport the load was then forwarded to other trucking companies. But again, no trucking company was willing to carry the load for that price. Finally, the load was listed on Getloaded.com, a website where shippers can list their load and payment details to be viewed and accepted by potential motor carriers. The only company to respond to the ATS listing was the Lewis Trucking Company. After Lewis Trucking inquired about the load, ATS followed its policy and investigated the company’s background, using Lewis Trucking’s DOT number, ATS’ traffic manager referenced a database maintained by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration which, among other things, provides a number known as the “SEA value” for each carrier.
“Lewis Trucking was in the top one-and a half percent of the worst companies in the U.S…”
All of the ratings provided for Lewis Trucking were “deficient,” meaning the company was unsafe. ATS understood that the ratings for Lewis Trucking indicated the company was unsafe. The Alabama State Troopers who investigated the accident testified in depositions they had never before seen a company with such unsafe safety ratings. In fact, Lewis Trucking was in the top 1.5% of the worst companies in the U.S. from a safety, perspective. ATS also had access to Lewis Trucking’s snapshot safety rating. Lewis Trucking had a “conditional rating” at the time it was hired to transport the ATS load.
A conditional rating means the carrier has multiple deficiencies and the motor carrier does not have adequate safety management controls in place to ensure compliance with the safety fitness standards. ATS’ own hired expert testified that he would not have hired a trucking company with a conditional rating. The expert admitted that he recommends that his shipper clients avoid hiring motor carriers with a conditional rating.
Armed with this information, ATS had a choice. It could hire an unsafe trucking company or it could increase the price for the load and re-engage ATS’ normal carriers. ATS chose to ignore that dismal safety record of Lewis Trucking and allowed Lewis to carry the load. The crux of Plaintiffs’ claim against ATS focused on the knowledge and recognition that Lewis Trucking was an extremely unsafe motor carrier. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary – all of the red flags – ATS contended that it had no duty to investigate Lewis Trucking and that the available information was insufficient to put it on notice that Lewis Trucking was unsafe. But ATS’ traffic manager conceded that it was ATS’ responsibility to investigate the safety of a motor carrier and that he clearly understood the information he had on Lewis Trucking indicated it was an unsafe company. In fact, he even admitted that, looking back on the incident, he should not have hired a trucking company with such poor safety ratings.
“The end result was the fiery collision caused by the unsafe driving by the driver for Lewis Trucking Company…”
ATS had sufficient information to put it on notice that Lewis Trucking should not have been hired. ATS ignored all of the “red flags” and the end result was the fiery collision caused by the unsafe driving by the driver for Lewis Trucking Company. With less than a week left before the trial was to start, ATS agreed to settle all seven of the death claims. The amount of the settlement, which was approved by the trial judge, was confidential.
Unfortunately, crashes involving motor carriers are very common on our roads. Shippers have a responsibility to investigate the safety ratings of the motor carriers they hire. Under the right facts and circumstances, shippers can be and should be held liable when they hire unsafe and unfit motor carriers to transport their loads. Safety ratings are collected and published for one reason, and one reason only, and that is to inform the public, including shippers, that some motor carriers are unfit . Many shippers simply hire a motor carrier without doing any background checks and that can’t be tolerated.
Our clients finally have closure, knowing that the company responsible for hiring an unsafe motor carrier that collided with the van carrying their loved ones has settled the cases. Additionally, as a matter of significant interest, federal officials revoked Lewis Trucking Company’s carrier authority, forcing its closure after the crash. Shane Seaborn and Myron Penn were the lead lawyers from our firm in this most important case. A number of lawyers from other firms were also involved. Those included Kendall Dunson; Walter McGowin; Frank Wilson; Lynn Jinks; and Michael Rutland.
All of the lawyers did a good job and contributed to the results reached for the families involved.