$75 million jury prize for driver ‘intended to send a message’

A multimillion-dollar award in punitive damages against the owners of a small South Texas trucking company was intended to warn the industry of overworked drivers, the defendant’s attorney told FreightWaves.

The $75 million punitive award against Jorge Marin and his wife as owners of three McAllen, Texas trucking companies was in addition to $5 million in compensatory damages in favor of Lauro Lozano, who had been one of Marin’s drivers, in a May 7 order filed in Hidalgo County, Texas District Court.

Lozano’s lawsuit, filed in 2017, stemmed from allegations that in 2015 Marin pressured him to change his logbook so he could undertake an 1,800-mile refrigerated transport from Texas to Maryland despite federal limits. hours of service (HOS). . Lozano fell asleep at the wheel early in the morning on a trip to Alabama, ending another truck and suffering serious injuries.

“This was a case where plaintiff’s attorney asked the jury to send a message to the community and the trucking industry that certain types of behavior would not be tolerated – overworked drivers and driving beyond legal limits,” Hector Torres, who represented the owners, told FreightWaves. “We of course disagree that my clients engaged in this kind of conduct, but the jury chose to believe otherwise, and a significant amount of damages resulted.”

Lozano’s attorney did not immediately return a call for comment on Torres’ assessment of the case. According to court documents, Lozano and his attorney argued that the company he worked for, JNM Express, had failed in its duty to Lozano and the general public, including exercising caution to provide a safe and secure workplace. supervising the activities of an employee.

The lawsuit pointed out that the defendants did not have workers’ compensation insurance and that they had created JNM Express and two other companies, Anca Transport and Omega Freight Logistics, in order to protect their personal assets “in a scheme aimed at to defraud creditors, including any employees injured or killed on the job.Operating through multiple entities was also “part of a scheme to defraud regulators by circumventing safety rules,” such as HOS, according to the lawsuit. .

Torres acknowledged that his clients’ choice not to purchase workers’ compensation insurance — which he said was voluntary in Texas — ended up being a major detriment to them. “If you opt out, you lose certain common law defenses that you would otherwise have if you were sued by an employee,” he said. “In this case, we could not claim that the accident was partly the fault of the driver. He fell asleep and refused to stop. And he blamed the owners for pressuring him. But we didn’t think there was any evidence of that at all.

Torres said the judge has yet to sign the judgment, which he says will likely be lowered due to legal limits on jury awards. His clients will then have 30 days to appeal, which he believes he has a good case for. “I think there were issues during the trial with some of the judge’s rulings on evidentiary issues – what should have been admitted into the trial and what should have been excluded.”

The owners’ other option is to file for bankruptcy protection, Torres said, or reach a settlement that can actually be worked out. As a small business with less than 20 trucks, “my customers don’t have the insurance to cover that price and will never be able to pay even a fraction of that verdict. These numbers are astronomical.

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About Jessica J. Bass

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