In recent years, plaintiff’s attorneys have seen increasing success in winning nuclear verdict trials. Between employing reptile theory and arguing that fleets put profits over safety, there are a number of strategies they can use to score a victory for their client.
One strategy that has been identified by legal experts as effective is “putting the safety manager on trial.” In effect, these attorneys turn the crash-involved driver against their fleet and lay the blame on the feet of the safety manager.
What This Looks Like in Practice
As an example, say a new driver ends up in a preventable crash that results in serious injuries to a pedestrian. Plaintiff’s attorneys will argue the driver, too, is a victim, because the fleet set them up to fail. They will often even try to turn the driver against their fleet, using them as a witness to demonstrate their safety manager was the one who set them up to fail.
They will try to show the policies and procedures executed by the safety manager were either improperly followed or insufficient. Even if training was assigned, they may argue that the safety manager should have recognized the amount assigned was inadequate and more was needed.
In situations like this, plaintiff’s attorneys will call the safety manager to the stand for cross examination, where they will try to make the safety manager’s work appear negligent to the jury.
Why This Strategy Works
The thought process behind this strategy is straightforward and effective: Drivers involved in a serious crash are often incredibly remorseful, and juries are unlikely to assign major damages to a remorseful defendant.
Additionally, this strategy argues that the driver’s actions were a symptom of a larger problem. Not only does this let the plaintiff’s attorneys avoid centering the case around the specifics of the crash at hand, but it also allows them to make the case that the fleet put profits ahead of safety, which—they will argue—can be disincentivized with large punitive damages.
Juries are made up of regular people and are unlikely to believe that a driver who may be traumatized from their crash needs to be further incentivized to take caution moving forward. By going after the fleet, rather than the driver, plaintiff’s attorneys get to attack a faceless corporate entity who they can argue needs to learn a lesson and should be ordered to pay excessive punitive damages.
How to Combat This Strategy
As a disclaimer, the following is not intended to be legal advice. Any decisions made regarding legal activity should be made in consultation with an attorney:
- Always treat your driver with respect and care after a crash.
- Even if a crash was preventable, it was likely not done out of malice. Not only is it the right way to treat someone who experienced a traumatic event, but it can also prevent a plaintiff’s attorney from recruiting them to help their case.
- Be open and transparent with your data.
- If you are forthcoming with your driver data and policies, it’s harder for the plaintiff’s attorney to portray your fleet as a bad faith actor with something to hide. Additionally, you can use your data to show that the incident in question was truly an unfortunate accident, and not the result of systemic negligence.
- Demonstrate you’ve gone above and beyond industry-standard safety practices.
- The key to beating back reptile theory is to show you take safety seriously. Platforms like the Idelic Safety Suite can help you demonstrate your commitment to public safety by showing that you’ve taken extra steps to invest in industry-leading safety technology.
Safety Suite is trucking’s premier driver management platform, which uses proprietary AI technology to organize and analyze your data and identify hidden risk in the firehose of data hitting your fleet every day. Safety Suite makes it easy to understand the issues your fleet faces, develop policies to address them, and execute your policies across your fleet.