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Safety and Compliance: Beat Nuclear Verdicts and Your Competition

It has never been more important to be safe and compliant. Such was the message driving Transport Topics’s webinar on nuclear verdicts and tort reform in accident litigation. 

Several topics were covered during this webinar in the discussion between TT’s Dan Ronan and Dan Cook,  Principal & Practice Leader of Risk Finance for TrueNorth Companies. 

Primarily, however, the discussion turned on two key subjects: the rising costs associated with insurance and nuclear verdicts, and preparing your organization as best as you can to minimize risk and accidents, and be ready to handle those accidents when they happen.

Nuclear Verdicts' Crippling Effects

We’ve covered nuclear verdicts on this blog before and they aren’t going away anytime soon. These hefty court cases often wipe out or cripple companies, and have become something of a cash industry for participating lawyers. 

Cook mentions in the webinar that many of the attorneys who practiced big litigation in medical malpractice and product liability cases in the 1990’s have migrated to “big trucking” litigation in search of big payouts.

In other words, they are on the prowl for your money.

What’s worse is that nuclear verdicts, and even the threat of them, have made life difficult for trucking companies.

High profile nuclear verdict cases have crushed public perception of companies’ good intentions and attempts to fix wrongs. 

Led by dark portrayals of big, indifferent corporations, juries tend to empathize with injured civilian drivers under most circumstances. This can be even worse for companies who are caught in mistakes but don’t own their mistakes, as our friend at Leading Edge Consulting, Clay Merches, points out. 

People have an expectation that companies will admit failures and correct mistakes; if they are unwilling or don’t, so much the worse for truckers. Out of fear for these cases, insurance has never been more expensive, and as Cook points out, has never been as low of coverage for the cost either. Facing no better alternative, companies settle for less coverage for more cost. 

Strategies for Avoiding Costly Mistakes

Companies have tried a few different approaches to alleviating these problems. One avenue Cook mentions is through tort reform in local and state legislatures. This can be necessary and sometimes fruitful, but any government process is slow and painful, if anything gets changed at all. 

A better solution is to control your own in-house preparation on multiple levels. You should always prioritize safety and compliance, but now that aspect also plays into competition for drivers and clients, since the abilities to reduce risk, and to train and educate drivers have never been more valuable. This has led to what Cook refers to as a need for a pro-operational safety approach.

Ultimately, this idea comes down to three things: training, education, and preparation. Driver development and training are essential to safety, and retention as well. 

Investing time in your drivers is a win-win; they become more prepared for the challenges of their job and feel more safe and appreciated, and you get to worry less about accidents or finding their replacement. 

Merches adds some valuable points about continuing that training; “on-going and remedial training with drivers goes above regulatory requirements and can help reduce frequency [of accidents].  

On-Going Driver Education & Safety Training Serve Multiple Purposes

This can also have a positive impact [on] jurors' perception of the industry, the carrier, and the driver that is the subject of the crash”. He also makes the valid point that technology has allowed this kind of ongoing driver development to continue for less cost and manpower effort than ever before.

But education at all levels of the company is just as important. Cook stresses that you should be cautious about who represents the company, from the road to the courtroom. Merches was even more explicit about this latter group: 

Carriers need to prepare and educate corporate representatives for deposition testimony.  Trucking is dynamic and challenging.  Being able to effectively express all of the work and effort that is completed day in and day out is critical to defending litigation claims. 

Corporate reps need to be able to articulate the Carriers processes and procedures in detail.  Being knowledgeable about the company, the driver and the claimant will have a positive impact on jurors.  It will give the impression that you care about the claimant, the crash and the public.

If everyone understands how this process works, they will know what needs to be done when an accident occurs, and will allow for a plan to be put into place for those situations.

Preparation Is Key to Prevention

Preparation includes everything from sound hiring practices (hiring quality drivers over quantity) to extensive training and development to education. All these culminate in a plan that allows you to have a process in place BEFORE an accident happens. 

Everyone from the driver to the dispatcher to the safety manager to corporate will know exactly what to do and when. Ideally, this would offer the driver and company the most protection in case they need to go to court, and have the ability to state their case reasonably with the understanding that plaintiff attorneys live to win such cases.

If companies can accomplish this, they can mitigate the risk of the dreaded nuclear verdict and the crushing costs of fines, court fees, and insurance.

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