Limiting an Accident to Its Facts

Our claim department is often asked by our insureds “What can we do to reduce our exposure in today’s litigious environment?” Here’s an example of one way to answer this question.

An insured truck is waiting behind a passenger vehicle at a stop sign. Before the vehicle proceeds, the truck rolls into the vehicle at a very low rate of speed causing minimal impact. The passengers don’t appear injured at the scene but they do seek treatment for their injuries including physical therapy and chiropractic care. No surgery is recommended. By all standards, this should be a minor matter.

We try unsuccessfully to resolve the case. The local attorney the claimant hired had just attended a plaintiffs’ bar seminar which recommended that in every litigated matter, seek discovery from the trucking company about their driver hiring and training practices and all maintenance records for their subject truck.

Defense counsel representing the insured learns that the trucking company didn’t do a thorough investigation of the driver before hiring him. Had the insured done so they would have learned that the driver had multiple moving violations in the past three years and a conviction for marijuana possession.

In addition, the safety director has no records of any safety training but will testify that he does speak to all his drivers about driving safely. Furthermore, the subject truck failed a roadside inspection due to inadequate brakes just two weeks prior to this accident.

A claim that would typically result in a minimal settlement now rises in value because the plaintiff amends his complaint to add allegations of negligent hiring, inadequate training, and negligence in the maintenance of the vehicle. He also seeks punitive damages alleging a reckless disregard for the safety of others on the part of the trucking company. The company certainly doesn’t feel it was reckless or that this accident is anything more than a very minor impact with minimal injuries. Unfortunately, the value of the claim has gone up because the additional allegations, although they have no causal connection to the accident, are allowed by the judge and could easily inflame the jury.

What is the lesson learned from this fact pattern? First, these facts are not that uncommon because the plaintiffs’ bar has become very focused on using hiring, training and maintenance information from trucking companies to inflate the settlement value of their claims. Second, limit your accidents to their facts by preventing inflammatory issues from becoming part of your claims. Perform an exhaustive review of all driver applicants before you hire them. Once hired, provide comprehensive safety training with all drivers on a regular basis and keep attendance records for all training sessions. Finally, perform regular maintenance and inspections of your vehicles to minimize the number of roadside violations.

By being proactive in these areas, you can limit your accidents to their facts and prevent an aggressive plaintiff attorney from diverting the jury’s attention away from the facts of the accident and the minor injuries to the conduct of the company. A little bit of precaution can go a long way in getting better financial results on claims that will inevitably occur.