$58 Million Jury Award in Lawsuit Involving a Tired Truck Driver

A prime example of what can happen when tired truck drivers are on our nation’s highways occurred in New Mexico. A New Mexico jury awarded $58.5 million to the family of a man killed in a highway crash caused by a tired trucker. After a 13-hour shift, a new driver hired to haul water used in the oil industry steered his 18-wheeler to the left without yielding and crashed into Kevin Udy, an engineer on his way home from his job at a nearby mine. The trucking company and its management company had chronic safety violations, lax training of drivers and pay structures that encourages workers to rush to finish their work. The company also had twice the number of citations as the national average. In pre-trial proceedings, the judge stripped the Defendants of their main defense after he found they had intentionally destroyed evidence. The jurors made a statement on the record about trucking safety after they awarded the verdict that included $47 million in punitive damages.
Monte Lyons, the driver, was finishing up his last trip hauling water from oil wells in southeastern New Mexico when he dropped off his final load of the night and headed back to the yard of his employer, trucking company Standard E&S. Udy, who was getting off work at a potash mine where he worked as a mechanical engineer, was headed home in his pickup truck. The 18-wheel tanker driven by Lyons, traveling in the opposite direction, suddenly pulled in front of Udy to make a left turn.
Susan Udy, the widow, and her five children filed suit against Lyons and three closely related corporate Defendants: Standard E&S; its management company Bergstein Enterprises, which oversaw safety; and Zia Transport, the owner of the truck. The Plaintiffs’ claims were for gross negligence and recklessness, which were quite appropriate considering the evidence of a history of Standard E&S trucks being taken off the road for safety violations.
Lyons, who had been on the job for six months when the crash happened, did not receive certified instruction on what to do expect when driving a big rig, such as safe stopping distances, reaction times and night driving. The industry standard under federal Department of Transportation guidelines is to provide a 12-week training program to a new driver who had never driven a 18-wheeler before. On the day of the crash, the truck’s registration had expired and it had a bald tire that should have been red tagged.
Standard E&S paid its employees by the job, not by the hour, and that was another factor in the incident. That was a system that gave drivers an incentive to be in a hurry. That is evidenced by the numerous speeding tickets Standard’s drivers had received. Lyons admitted in his testimony at trial that he was probably fatigued after going back and forth from the wells for 13 hours.
The Defendants claimed that Udy was also at fault for not stopping, but the judge took away that defense after ruling the defendants intentionally destroyed log records that may have shown Lyons, the 18-wheeler driver, was chronically overworked. At trial, the defense lawyers argued that even though the company’s safety violations were worse than the national average, they were no worse than the average in the oil and gas industry. It appears that their defense was that the oil and gas industry operates at lower standards of safety.
The jury awarded $11.5 million in compensatory damages and a little over four times that amount in punitive damages, or $47.5 million. After voting unanimously to award the largest verdict in state history, jurors asked the judge if they could add a statement to the verdict form, which was allowed. The jury foreman read this statement:
This is from all of us. Our hope is that our judgment will clearly communicate that we expect a much higher standard of safety and trainin in the trucking industry.
William Robins of Heard & Robins in Santa Fe, New Mexico, along with George T. Waddoups and J. Bradford DeBry of Robert J. DeBry & Associates in Salt Lake City, Utah, represented the Udy family. They did a very good job for them in the case. The case is Udy v. Standard E&S LLC in New Mexico District Court, Santa Fe County.