It’s no longer surprising when Pennsylvania’s courts rank high in the Judicial Hellholes Report released annually by the American Tort Reform Foundation. However, a new report on nuclear verdicts issued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) ranks Pennsylvania number five in the nation for nuclear verdicts from 2010-2019 and number three per capita behind only Florida and New York. Over half of these verdicts came out of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
Nuclear verdicts, defined as court rulings in which the jury awards the plaintiff more than $10 million, have become increasingly a concern for the trucking industry. Average verdicts in the industry have skyrocketed from $2.3 million to $22.3 million during the same decade mentioned above, almost a 1000% increase. And they’re still rising.
Of course, such awards are disastrous for trucking companies that are impacted, but the trend itself has dramatically driven up the cost and limited the availability of liability insurance, affecting every business in the industry and increasing costs for transportation at a time when supply chain challenges and inflation continue to plague the U.S. economy.
About one in four auto accident trials resulting in a verdict of more than $10 million or more in ILR’s study involved a trucking company.
The ILR report highlights Pennsylvania’s product liability and medical liability cases as making up the majority of the 78 reported nuclear verdicts during the reported period, each with 31% of the total. Auto accidents came in at 15%.
However, recent news may make Pennsylvania’s trucking companies a more frequent target. Pennsylvania Association for Justice (PAJ) President Kila Baldwin recently announced that the association is working to organize a trucking law section so that trial lawyers working on litigation against trucking companies can trade notes on best strategies. PAJ will provide continuing legal education courses and create a listserv for attorneys to share resources and find experts to help them sue trucking companies. “The increasing complexity of these cases means you can’t just dabble in trucking law,” Baldwin said. “They are much more complex than basic automobile accident cases, and may also involve criminal investigations.”
There is also evidence that, with lawsuit numbers rising and trial lawyers focusing on trucks, large verdicts are also on the rise in Pennsylvania since the coronavirus pandemic, with attorneys involved in these cases reporting that the pandemic seems to have made jurors more motivated to help plaintiffs.
A recent article in the Legal Intelligencer reported that as of the end of September, five verdicts had already surpassed $10 million, while in 2021, only four had passed this threshold. Verdicts are also higher this year, with the largest 2022 verdict being at $21 million in an employment liability lawsuit in March, while 2021’s largest was a $19 million verdict in a car-crash case. The second-highest verdict this year was $18 million, while last year’s was just short of $16 million.
Trucking defense attorneys are alert to trends in the industry. Saxton & Stump attorney and PMTA Board member Doug Marcello noted that he’s seen an increase in trucking-related litigation since the pandemic, he thinks, due in part to passenger vehicle operators driving faster and more recklessly. While most accidents involving a truck are the fault of passenger vehicles, Marcello says a lawsuit is likely to follow against the trucking company, no matter who is at fault. “It has become an area where plaintiffs are living by the mantra, hit a truck and get a check. They look at trucks as being 18-wheel ATM machines.”
PMTA’s Board of Directors and Legislative Committee have elevated lawsuit abuse reform to a high priority for the association moving forward in response to these trends. Stay tuned for updates.
In addition, PMTA’s October 19 Safety Day agenda includes a Litigation Trilogy session with updates from excellent speakers on several aspects of litigation in the industry. Please sign up to join us.
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