In my experience as a St. Louis semi truck accident attorney, it’s rare for a trucker involved in an accident not to stop at the scene. That’s partly because truck drivers are very aware of the professional consequences they face if they fail to stop and render aid. It’s a crime for any driver to hit and run, but truckers would likely be fired, and their trucking companies might be penalized by federal regulators if the behavior was condoned. So I was interested to see a case in which the identity of the at-fault trucker and trucking company was at issue. In Swift Transportation Co. v. Angulo et al., Swift, a trucking company, lost a lawsuit and later sued its defense lawyer for failing to appeal the verdict in a timely manner. The lawsuit concerned the permanent paralysis of a driver who believes he was forced off the road by speeding a Swift tractor-trailer.
Around 6:15 on the morning of Nov. 8, 2004, Joe Turner was driving a bread delivery truck on a highway outside Star City, Ark. An eighteen-wheeler, apparently attempting to pass by moving into the opposing lane of traffic, headed head-on for Turner, forcing him off the road and into a culvert. Turner was thrown and suffered injuries that left him confined to a wheelchair and with limited use of his right arm. Turner told witnesses and later, a relative, that a Swift truck forced him off the road. He was in shock and babbling at the scene, and also said he was 21 even though his actual age was 56. He did not recall these statements later. A neighbor who witnessed the crash from her house also said the truck was a Swift truck. Based on this allegation, Swift searched its satellite tracking records and made a printout showing where its trucks were on the day of the crash. It failed to preserve the records, but kept the printout and disclosed it late in the trial.
After a retrial due to a hung jury, the new jury awarded $6 million to Turner. Swift alleges that Angulo, its attorney, failed to appeal the verdict in a timely manner. Swift filed a late appeal, but the state Court of Appeals dismissed without deciding whether the untimeliness was permissible. Swift then sued Angulo and his new law firm for legal malpractice, and the federal district court granted summary judgment, reasoning that the malpractice case would not have succeeded on appeal anyway.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed, agreeing that none of the issues Swift raised would have resulted in a more favorable outcome. Swift first argued that it cannot be liable under Arkansas law unless Turner proved that the tractor part of the tractor-trailer had a Swift logo (because Swift trailers are sometimes used by other companies). But the Eighth found that the eyewitness evidence was sufficient to support the verdict, and thus the appeals court would not have overturned the judgment. It also found no abuse of discretion by the trial court that the appeals court would have overturned, including a sanction against Swift for withholding evidence during discovery; an instruction to the jury that Swift spoiled evidence by failing to preserve it; and admission of Turner’s statements at the scene as “excited utterances.” Finally, the court ruled that the appeals court would likely not have reversed as to an animated recreation of the crash or Turner’s expert’s testimony.
Many of these issues are the same issues that underlay the trial itself, because appeals court decide whether legal malpractice happened by deciding whether the outcome would have changed. Thus, this case airs the trucking company’s likely appellate arguments, and as a Missouri tractor-trailer accident lawyer, I’m pleased to see that they were found without merit. In particular, the courts appear to have concluded that Swift knew the satellite data would be useful and failed to prevent its destruction. It had a clear incentive to do so, but because it was called out in court for destroying it, the company may actually have inspired the jury to award more in damages. Of course, the main purpose of the damages is to help Turner adjust to the serious disabilities he now lives with, and as a southern Illinois 18-wheeler accident attorney, I’m glad he has access to that money.
If you or someone you love suffered a serious accident with a large truck, Carey, Danis & Lowe can help. To learn more about your rights or tell us your story, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us an email.
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