A jury in a Dallas County truck wreck case delivered a whopping $37,900,000.00 verdict on July 18, 2016, for a wrongful death action resulting from a wreck on an icy Texas highway in February of 2015. The case was originally brought by the decedent’s two children, with his wife and mother adding themselves as Intervenors to the case. Both the truck driver and his employer, O’Reilly Auto Parts (O’Reilly), were found liable for negligence and gross negligence.
In their Petition, Plaintiffs alleged that the truck driver was acting within the course and scope of his employment when he, “failed to control speed on the road with slick conditions and crossed the lane into oncoming traffic before ultimately, suddenly and unexpectedly coming into the path of [the decedent].” The truck driver lost control of his 18 wheeler in the ice, jack-knifed the rig, and came to rest blocking all lanes of traffic in poor visibility conditions.
The truck driver purportedly failed to maintain a safe speed given the road conditions, failed to place reflective cones at the accident, used his cell phone while driving, and was driving while fatigued. Plaintiffs and Intervenors alleged O’Reilly was liable under theories of vicarious liability and for the negligent hiring and supervision of the driver. The Defendants unsuccessfully argued that the decedent was also at fault for the accident for failure to maintain a safe speed and failure to take proper evasive action.
Further, the Intervenors brought gross negligence claims against O’Reilly alleging that, “O’Reilly had in their possession documentation and information that Defendant [truck driver], was incompetent and reckless in the operation of a tractor trailer.” Plaintiffs and Intervenors brought up the truck driver’s record at trial, which included (1) three accidents with O’Reilly trucks in three years prior to the crash, (2) one accident in his personal vehicle, (3) two speeding tickets, and (4) one motorist’s complaint to O’Reilly’s 1-800 number.1
The jury must have been convinced: they attributed 0% responsibility for the crash to the decedent, but placed 60% on O’Reilly and 40% on the truck driver. The unanimous verdict found that both O’Reilly and the truck driver were grossly negligent and awarded $10,000,000.00 to each of the decedent’s two daughters, $10,000,000.00 to decedent’s wife, $4,800,000.00 to his mother, and $2,000,000.00 to decedent’s estate, for a grand total of almost $38,000,000.00
The timeframe for an appeal on this case has not yet elapsed, so we’ll see where this one goes. Regardless, this case should serve as a reminder to all employers that they can be held responsible when their employees behave negligently during the course and scope of their employment. But more importantly, it serves as a reminder that IF a jury believes that an employer turned a blind eye toward a negligent or dangerous employee (especially a professional driver), then they may feel justified in not only finding gross negligence, but in also awarding substantial punitive damages.
1 See Dallas Morning News Article, “Victim’s family awarded $37.9M in fatal crash” by Caleb Downs