In my work as a St. Louis tractor-trailer accident attorney, I have represented many families who were hurt by the gross negligence of a trucking company or its truck driver. So I was interested to see a recent trucking accident lawsuit appeal that focused on gross negligence, ultimately finding insufficient evidence to support punitive damages but upholding the verdict for the injured person. In Gibson v. Fuel Transport, Inc., a truck carrying coal overturned on a Kentucky highway, triggering an accident that took the life of 78-year-old Topsie Gibson. Gibson’s estate sued Fuel Transport Inc., the owner of the truck, and won $2.12 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages. The Court of Appeals for Kentucky set aside the punitive damages award and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, but dismissed the trucking company’s cross-appeal.
On the night of the crash, the coal truck overturned at a bend in Highway 80 in a rural area. Behind the truck was a pickup truck driven by Roger Russell, with Gibson as a passenger. Russell approached the curve just moments after the accident and was unable to stop, in part because of coal on the highway. Garnett Gibson, executor of Gibson’s estate, and Russell both sued. Russell settled, but Gibson ultimately went to trial against Fuel Transport as well as the trucker, claiming the company was grossly negligent for failing to properly maintain the truck, and negligent in entrusting the driver with the truck. Both defendants appealed the $4 million judgment. The Court of Appeals set aside only the $2 million punitive damages award, finding no clear and convincing evidence that Fuel Transport was grossly negligent. Both sides appealed, with Fuel Transport arguing on cross-appeal that multiple errors warranted a new trial.
The Kentucky Supreme Court granted a partial victory to each side, finding no gross negligence but also no merit in Fuel Transport’s arguments. Punitive damages may be awarded in Kentucky only with a finding of gross negligence. The Gibson estate argued that Fuel Transport was aware of but ignored a problem with the truck’s fifth wheel, not a wheel but the device that attaches the truck to the trailer. Fuel Transport had recently bought the truck, and the seller testified that he told them the fifth wheel was worn out, although the company denied this. The company made no repairs and the driver drove it for a week without problems before the crash. A responding officer saw nothing wrong with the fifth wheel at the scene. The high court took all of this as evidence that the estate failed to prove the fifth wheel caused the accident, thus meaning there was no basis for finding gross negligence. The court went on to dismiss several of Fuel Transport’s cross-appeal arguments as waived and others as meritless.
As a southern Illinois semi truck accident lawyer, I always prefer to see large awards for people who suffered a serious trucking accident. I’m sorry to say that in many cases, the victims and their families truly need the award, because trucking accidents often cause catastrophic, fatal or disabling injuries. Not only are these injuries very expensive to treat or accommodate (when there’s a disability), but they can remove a wage-earner from the workforce entirely, depriving the family of needed income. But just as importantly, punitive damages are intended to penalize very serious wrongdoing—like negligence that leads to a fatal accident, as was alleged here. As a Missouri 18-wheeler accident attorney, I fight for my clients to receive all of the compensation they can claim from careless trucking companies.
If you believe a bad decision by a trucker or trucking company caused a serious accident in your family, you should call Carey, Danis & Lowe today. Based in St. Louis and Belleville, Ill., we represent clients across southern Illinois and Missouri who suffered a death or injury in a crash with a large truck. You can reach us through our website or call 1-877-678-3400 today.
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