What Are “Nuclear Verdicts” And How Do They Affect Insurance Rates?

We rarely think about how the transport industry works. But maybe we should. Every year, millions of trucks — gasoline-fueled missiles, rather — travel from one end of the United States to the other. We’re talking hundreds of millions of miles traveled on an annual basis. With those kinds of numbers, accidents are inevitable. And what happens when those accidents lead to massive lawsuits that wind up in court?

Mike Card is president and CEO of Combined Transport. He took over the business from his father, who started it in 1980. And suffice it to say, business is better than ever. This is in part because of the reliance on material goods during the coronavirus pandemic. The government relies on some trucking services to get vaccines and PPE from one region to the next. But Card says the bigger the business gets, the more he worries.

He commented, “If someone wins $20 million from the jury, my insurance companies only pay the first $5 [million]. I would have to pay the next $15 million. We couldn’t afford that. We’d have to shut our doors.”

It’s a legitimate concern. From 2010 to 2019, the number of trucking accidents with fatalities blew up 43 percent. Overall injuries rose 7 percent. Needless to say, most of the casualties were passengers or drivers in other vehicles.

Combine that with the epidemic of “nuclear verdicts” — or the ballooning costs and jury awards from those crashes in excess of $10 million, and you get a lot of worried business owners. The aforementioned 43 percent increase in fatalities doesn’t come close to the whopping 1000 percent increase in jury awards during the exact same time period.

Why are the awards getting so high so fast? Liberty Mutual Insurance says that the main reason is the idea that the system in general is broken (and hint: it is). 

But the trucking industry is more likely to receive a punitive judgement (i.e. a punishment from the judge) for gross negligence than many other industries. That’s because truck drivers are often fatigued behind the wheel. Coupled with the fact that some drivers are allowed to keep their drives even without a flawless driving record, and it’s easy for a personal injury lawyer to win a case for injured plaintiffs.

An anonymous lawyer from Koonz McKenney Johnson & Depaolis LLP (https://koonz.com/) said, “99 percent of the time, it’s the business owner’s fault. It’s the hiring practices, the overtime hours, the broken laws and regulations that lead to the majority of these accidents. Ordinary people are the ones who pay the price with their lives. Why shouldn’t we take the owners to town for their mistakes? Someone has to reimburse victims for the damage done, and it’s got to be the ones responsible. The drivers are just tools for those business owners. And so we target the business owners.”

But senior vice president of the American Transportation Research Institute Dan Murray says, “In most states there’s a disconnect between your level of negligence and your level of liability. There are states where you can be identified as 10 percent of 15 percent negligence and still be vulnerable for 100 percent of the financial liabilities.”