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Case Study

BECAUSE THE RESULTS OBTAINED IN SPECIFIC CASES DEPEND ON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE, PAST CASE RESULTS DO NOT GUARANTEE OR PREDICT A SIMILAR RESULT IN FUTURE CASES UNDERTAKEN BY A LAWYER OR LAW FIRM.

Death Case Mediated For $1 Million At approximately 12:40 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2002, the defendants’ eastbound tractor-trailer crossed the median of Interstate 64 and crashed head-on into the car in which the plaintiff’s decedent was riding. The plaintiff’s decedent was killed instantly. The parties agreed to conduct an early mediation of the case. At mediation, the plaintiff argued that the truck driver was clearly negligent since he left his lanes of travel and entered the oncoming lane.

The truck driver and the trucking company argued that the truck driver blacked out without any warning, due to an unforeseen syncopic episode suddenly caused by choking. The plaintiff responded, however, that under the Virginia Deadman’s Statute (Virginia Code Sect. 8.01-397), the truck driver would be precluded from relying on his uncorroborated testimony to prevail on a sudden medical emergency defense. The plaintiff further argued that the truck driver should not have been driving a commercial motor vehicle in the middle of the night when he knew he had previously had serious problems with sleep apnea. The plaintiff also argued that the truck driver knew he was tired and needed rest. On the night of the collision, he told a Virginia State Trooper that shortly before the collision he talked to a UPS driver on his CB radio and said he was looking for a place to pull over and take a break.

According to the trucker’s log book, the last time prior to this collision he recorded any break was approximately 20 hours earlier. Under federal regulations, the driver’s “record of duty status” (i.e., log book) must be kept “current to the time shown for the last change of duty status.” Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations Sect. 395.8(f)(1). The plaintiff argued that the log book, combined with the applicable federal law, supported the conclusion that the truck driver had not taken any break for nearly 20 hours. The plaintiff stressed that the jury would be instructed that under Virginia law, driving for more than 13 hours constitutes negligence. Virginia Code Sect. 8.01-46.2-812; Virginia Model Jury Instructions, Instruction No. 10.050.

The trucking company also argued that it could not be held liable because the truck driver was an “independent contractor” who was leasing its truck. The plaintiff responded that, since the trucking company’s name and Department of Transportation number were on the side of the tractor, federal statutes and regulations rendered the trucking company the “statutory employer” of the truck driver even if, under state law principles that would apply in other contexts, he would be an independent contractor. Long-standing federal statutory-employment rules remain valid under the Interstate Commerce Commission (“ICC”) Termination Act, and they impose upon the motor carrier complete liability to the public for harm caused in the operation of the equipment operated under the carrier’s authority. SeeRyder Truck Rental, Inc. v. UTF Carriers, Inc., 907 F.2d 34 (4th Cir. 1990). Additionally, the effect of the federal leasing regulations is to make the carrier/lessee liable to the same extent as it would be for its own equipment operated by its own employees. The 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the intent of the federal leasing regulations was to correct widespread abuses incident to leases of trucking equipment and to make sure that licensed carriers would be responsible in fact, as well as in law, for the maintenance of leased equipment and the supervision of borrowed drivers. See Proctor v. Colonial Refrigerated Transportation, Inc., 494 F.2d 89 (4th Cir. 1974) (citing American Trucking Associations v. United States, 344 U.S. 298 (1953)).

The plaintiff’s decedent was 25 years old at the time of her death, and had just graduated from a police training academy. Before deciding to become a police officer, she had attended college (the first person in her extended family to attend college) and had worked for several years as an award-winning journalist. She was survived by her father, mother, and a sister. Because the plaintiff’s decedent had not yet begun her new career and her family members did not, in any event, depend upon her for financial support, there was no evidence of any economic losses. The settlement recovery was thus completely for the family members’ grief, anguish, and other non-economic losses. Additional terms of the settlement included funding of two $10,000 scholarships. One scholarship was established at the newspaper where plaintiff’s decedent had worked as a reporter and the second was established at the police academy where plaintiff’s decedent completed training just prior to the collision.

Type of Action: Wrongful Death – Tractor-Trailer Collision with Automobile

Type of Injuries: Traumatic Brain Injury Resulting in Death

Name of the Case: Confidential

Court: Case settled before lawsuit was filed.

Awarded/Settled: Settled at mediation in December of 2002 [publication of this trial report was delayed due to a confidentiality agreement until related cases were resolved.]

Mediator: John H. OBrion, Jr.

Amount: $1,000,000 and scholarship funding of $20,000

Attorneys for Plaintiff: James A. McCauley, Bridget N. Long and Roger T. Creager, Richmond

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