Background

On December 30, 2014, a pickup truck carrying three children and two adults was traveling in the eastbound lanes of Interstate 20 (I-20) in Ector County, Texas when it hit a patch of ‘black ice’ and went out of control, crossed the grassy median and was struck by a westbound 18-wheeler (tractor-trailer).  The driver of the 18-wheeler (an employee of Werner) had been traveling in the left lane of I-20 at a speed of 50 – 60 mph during a period of inclement weather which included freezing rain and icy road conditions. The icy conditions had been forecast and two winter weather warnings had been issued for the area. As a result of the crash one of the children in the pickup truck was killed and a second child was severely injured.

The driver of the 18-wheeler had been hired by Werner earlier that month. He had a commercial driver’s license, but he was considered by Werner to be a trainee at the time of the crash. His trainer was asleep in the sleeping berth when the crash occurred.

Introtech Accident Reconstruction Services

The specific issue to be resolved by Introtech was to determine the likely outcome if the driver of the 18-wheeler had been following the Federal and State Regulations. Additionally, Introtech was to determine whether actions or inactions on the part of the motor carrier were likely causal factors in this crash.

James Crawford of Introtech was retained to reconstruct the crash on behalf of the passengers in the pickup truck. Mr. Crawford, an accredited accident reconstructionist, created a scale drawing of the crash scene and vehicles. Based on the physical evidence at the crash scene Mr. Crawford was able to confirm that the 18-wheeler was driving in the left lane at the time of the crash. Mr. Crawford analyzed the data contained in the 18-wheeler’s engine control module to determine the driver’s speed and driving actions before, during, and after the crash sequence.

An Electronic Control Module (“ECM”) is a small computer that collects data. All modern, heavy trucks (e.g., 18 wheelers, or tractor trailers) are equipped with ECMs. The basic function of ECMs is to control and monitor the vehicle’s operations. ECMs that are capable of recording crash data are equipped with an Event Data Recorder (“EDR”) function. The recording function is normally triggered by an event that is associated with an accident such as hard braking or the change in velocity related to a crash impact. Engine manufacturers may refer to these triggering events by a variety of names including “Hard Brake,” “Quick Stop” or “Incident.”

Analysis

Using data from the National Weather Service and from numerous traffic crash reports at and around the area of the crash Mr. Crawford determined that the roadway was indeed icy as the forecast predicted. In fact, the law enforcement photos of the 18-wheeler at final rest after the crash showed ice buildup on the tractor. Federal and State regulations required commercial vehicles, including this 18-wheeler, to slow to a crawl and stop driving as soon as practicable under icy road conditions.

Based on the physical evidence, Mr. Crawford created an animation of the crash sequence which verified that the crash occurred in the left westbound lane of I-20. Mr. Crawford’s animation further illustrated how the impact produced passenger compartment intrusion on the pickup causing the injuries of the passengers.

Next Mr. Crawford created a hypothetical animation which illustrated what would have happened if the 18-wheeler had been traveling at a crawl as required by Federal and State regulations. If the 18-wheeler had been traveling in accordance with Federal and State regulations the pickup would have passed safely out of the path of the 18-wheeler without an impact.

Opinion

  1. The Werner trainer failed to plan for the forecast and actual driving conditions as required and failed to train his student accordingly.
  2. The Werner trainer allowed the trip to start towards an area with forecast icy roads, and he assigned the relatively inexperienced student to drive unmonitored through these dangerous conditions while the trainer was in the sleeper.
  3. The adverse weather and road conditions that were key factors in this crash were widely publicized well before Werner Fleet Manager assigned this trip to these drivers. Werner Fleet Managers took no responsibility for considering published NWS warnings before assigning loads to drivers, but merely relied on drivers to tell them when the route chosen by the driver could not be safely followed.
  4. The facts of this case were consistent with the failure of Werner’s instructor to properly teach his student driver how to correctly balance safety with on-time performance. The fact that this student driver continued to drive at highway speeds despite encountering hazardous icy road conditions was consistent with Werner’s emphasis for on-time delivery of this ‘Just-In-Time’ load.
  5. It was a series of errors, oversights, and failures to follow established guidelines and policies on the part of Werner personnel that led to this vehicle-to-vehicle collision. Werner was setting up this student driver to fail in this case, and in so doing Werner placed the safety of the public at risk.
  6. The main causative factors in this vehicle-to-vehicle collision were the adverse road conditions (ice on the roadway) and adverse human factors (unsafe route selection and lack of experience for the student driver coupled with lack of adequate supervision by the Werner instructor).

Results

  1. The jury found negligence on the part of Werner, but no gross negligence. They attributed 70 % liability to Werner employees other than the driver, 14% liability to the Werner driver and 16 percent to the pickup driver.
  2. The jury awarded damages to the plaintiffs in the amount of $89,687,994.00.