A Michigan jury recently awarded $7.7 million to a man who was seriously injured in 2018 when the wheel of a reverse-bound panel truck came off, jumped the median and crashed into the front of his vehicle.
It took an eight-member jury less than two hours Friday to find Wayne, Michigan-based Lower Huron Chemical & Supply Co. solely responsible for failing to comply with Department of Transportation regulations for the inspection, repair and maintenance of its commercial vehicles.
The jury award was announced after a 15-day civil trial in Circuit Court in Oakland County, Michigan.
On August 13, 2018, Vincent Doa of Brighton, Michigan, was traveling eastbound on Interstate 96 near Wixom, Michigan when the wheel of a 2005 international panel truck, driven by Nicholas Lopez of Garden City, Michigan, pulled after West drove, pulled away, rolled across the median, and hit Doa’s car head-on.
According to court documents, Lopez drove for Lower Huron Chemical & Supply Co. of Wayne, Michigan. Lawyers said this is Lopez’s first job in the trucking industry.
“It was incredibly important to this jury that they heard from every trucker, every maintenance professional, whether layman or expert, and they also heard from three different police officers involved in the investigation or accident reconstruction,” said attorney Ven Johnson . who represented Doa, to FreightWaves. “These people talked about how deadly and how common [wheels coming off commercial vehicles] and that 99.9% are preventable. It is a maintenance inspection problem.”
Johnson said Doa, now 71, suffered traumatic brain injury, spinal cord compression, rotator cuff tear and arm plexopathy. Since the crash, he added, Doa, the owner of a Michigan-based construction company, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.
Lower Huron, a domestic trucking company that transports paper products and chemicals, has five trucks and the same number of drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Safety and Fitness Electronic Records (SAFER) website.
Company lawyer Michael Edmunds of Gault Davison PC said Lower Huron has a training program for its drivers on pre-drive inspections, including looking for oil leaks.
“The company didn’t realize they were required to actually check the oil in the wheel hubs during the pre-ride inspection,” Edmunds told FreightWaves.
Instead, Lower Huron hired CommFleet Inc., headquartered in Taylor, Michigan, to service its trucks for annual checks and other periodic repairs. CommFleet, which inspected the 2005 International truck in May 2018, three months before the accident and again three months after the incident, was dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Lopez, who was new to the trucking industry, was also dismissed from the case before trial.
Edmunds said Lower Huron, a family business since 1981, relied on the CommFleet mechanic to “check and change hub oil.”
“The plaintiff argued that the FMCSA requires drivers to do so, but there is no explicit requirement in the CFR [code of federal regulations] to check wheel hub oil is just a general requirement to ensure trucks are properly lubricated,” Edmunds said. “However, the truck’s owner’s manual recommended a daily check of the wheel hub oil before driving [Lower Huron] has put in place a policy requiring this to be part of pre-trip inspections.”
Johnson said the award was so lofty because the judges “felt threatened by the company’s conduct.”
“The company admitted the wheel came loose, but did not admit negligence,” Johnson said. “The company’s owner and employees admit they don’t follow the DOT regulations, admit they never read them because they didn’t have time to run their business, and admit they don’t have any preventative at all maintenance program.”
According to Johnson, Lower Huron had a document retention policy whereby the company simply threw away the paperwork after the pile grew too tall after two or three months.
Lower Huron attorney Edmunds did not say if the company planned to appeal Doa’s $7.7 million jury award.
Despite Lower Huron’s efforts to show that Doa continued to work and run his construction business despite his injuries, Johnson said his client’s business suffered and he lost accounts as a result of the incident.
“If he didn’t own the company, [Doa] couldn’t have worked because of all the time he was missing from appointments and physical therapy,” Johnson said. “He had three shitty years in a row after the crash, but last year he had his best year in a long time.”
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