Freightliner Trucks loses $9M in jury trial for injured tractor

Our new partner, Terry McCartney, was lead counsel on the following case at his former firm in New York:

Tim was a young tractor trailer driver for J.B. Hunt out of Phoenix hauling Wal-Mart goods between there and the Southgate Terminal in Los Angeles on same day turnarounds – about a 600 mile round trip.  Tim lived in rural Buckeye, Arizona with his young wife Renee and their two girls on a nice piece of land where they also kept a few horses.  Tim had put up a split rail fence around the stables to make a safe place for the girls to ride.  Tim was a big, happy guy who lived life full and loved Renee and the girls.  He logged a lot of miles on Interstate 10 between Phoenix and L.A., usually leaving early in the morning and getting home late at night – if everything went right with exchanging his loads and traffic.  If Tim got held up, he would sleep in his tractor along the way somewhere.  Tim drove a 2001 Freightliner Century Class integrated sleeper tractor and hauled a single trailer. Unfortunately for Tim, his employer did not request the optional emergency exit door from Freightliner when they bought the truck.

On the day before he died, Tim got held up in L.A. getting his load and by the time he made it through the rush hour traffic on I-10, it was late and he decided to stop in Indio, California near Palm Springs to get some rest.  He called Renee at 11:47 p.m. and told her he’d wake her in the morning when he got home.  After that call, apparently changing his mind and wanting to get back home to his family, Tim took a pill to stay awake and got back on the Interstate toward home.  A few miles later, for reasons unknown, Tim’s rig drifted off the road to the left, hit a bridge abutment and rolled onto its left side in a dry wash.  Another trucker, Mike, was right behind Tim and saw the accident, quickly parked his rig and ran to help.

By the time Mike got to Tim’s rig, it was already on fire – the fuel tanks had ruptured and the spilled fuel ignited from the metal sparks thrown off during the accident – and the front of the rig was fully engulfed.  Mike heard Tim banging on the skylight in the roof of the sleeper compartment which was now facing him because the truck was on its side.  Since the truck did not have an emergency exit and the front part of the truck was on fire, Tim’s only possible exit was the skylight, which was intentionally designed to be “non-opening.”  So Mike took a rock and broke the skylight window out and saw that Tim was unhurt and that the fire was moving in their direction quickly.  Mike grabbed Tim by the arms and pulled with all his might and Tim wiggled and pushed to try to get his big body through the small skylight opening.  Tragically, Tim got stuck there and died half in, half out of his burning rig.

Terry McCartney sued Freightliner in federal court in Riverside, California for making the truck without any emergency exits – they sold emergency exits as “options” and said it was up to their customers to decide if they wanted them.  Unfortunately for them, their own expert’s statistics from a survey he did showed that 89% of the other truck manufacturers they surveyed sold their trucks with emergency exits as standard equipment.  Also, Freightliner’s own surrogate tests showed that Tim could have exited the vehicle through an emergency exit, if his truck had be equipped with one, even with the truck overturned like it was, in less than 25 seconds.  After a trial of several weeks, the jury found the Freightliner truck to be defective and returned a plaintiff’s verdict for $9 million.  The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later cut the amount in half but did not overturn the favorable verdict.