Attendees at the recent annual meeting of the American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) were treated to an entertaining and informative mock trial. Of course, I may be biased because I played the expert witness for the plaintiff, Dr. Ned Hackley.
Hackley grew up driving trucks on his uncle’s farm before going to college to earn a master’s degree in engineering and then a doctorate in sociology. Since they also performed their own repairs, Hackley claimed to have extensive experience servicing vehicles.
The principle was simple. A fleet did a brake job, a tire dealer “skinned” the outer tire of the wheel end that was installed by the fleet, and then a freewheeling accident occurred. The loose tire and wheel assembly struck a car traveling in the opposite direction, seriously injuring the driver and totaling her vehicle and damaging several other vehicles in the crash. It was a million dollar case because the injured party had severe and potentially permanent disabilities.
The plaintiff’s allegations against the fleet were based on the fact that there were inconsistencies in the procedures followed and the training received by the maintenance personnel. While the Fleet Defense witness described the TMC recommended practices that were followed along with the basic components of their setup/wheel torque, there was no doubt that the fleet was the last to touch the wheels.
See also: Wheel-off watchers watch
For the tire dealer, Hackley pointed out that “stripping” a tire (removing and mounting without removing the wheel from the axle) does not follow the standard of care for a tire repair. Various industry organizations recommend inflating the tire in a restraint device (safety cage) so that it can be inspected for a broken zipper, which means it must be removed from the axle. The dealer’s defense expert pointed out that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) allows inflation of a one-piece assembly on the vehicle if the lug nuts are fully tightened, and no industry recommendations specifically prohibits this practice.
The charges against wheel and hub manufacturers were based on the claim that hub-driven wheel systems are faulty. Hackley offered compelling testimony on how inferior and dangerous they are. Defense witnesses from wheel and hub manufacturers made it clear that hub-driven systems account for over 99% of new commercial wheels, and that there are numerous quality control mechanisms in place to ensure durability. aluminum alloys, eliminating the possibility of “soft metal” being used in components.
With a jury of obviously biased maintenance professionals, the charges against the builders were quickly dismissed. However, in a real trial, Hackley’s outrageous and inaccurate claims would certainly play a bigger role in the minds of lawyers, who know little or nothing about trucks. Presumably, the manufacturers would settle before the case went to court, so the plaintiff could focus on the fleet and the dealership, which is not uncommon. In the end, the jury ruled that Fleet should take 100% of the blame as they were the last to touch the wheel.
The fictional TMC track illustrates what happens after an accident. Every party that is even remotely involved in the factual model will be brought into the civil litigation. The claimant’s expert or experts will make a wide variety of claims, some legitimate and some not. Manufacturers usually settle quickly to avoid defense costs, which often leaves the fleet and the tire dealer holding the bag. If the case ever makes it to trial, the jury will determine who is at fault. Experts will give their opinion and lawyers will argue, but six to 12 people will review all the evidence before making a decision.
When the plaintiff is seriously injured or mourns the loss of a loved one, there must be redress in the eyes of most jurors. It is human nature to sympathize with someone who is disabled or distraught as a result of an accident, so the unpredictable nature of a jury should always be factored into the decision to go to trial. or settle amicably. Even if the facts suggest that a defendant has done nothing wrong, it is rare for a corporation to be exonerated from liability. TMC’s mock trial demonstrated how liability cannot be eliminated; it can only be controlled by following industry recommended practices and guidelines.
Kevin Rohlwing is senior vice president of training for the Tire Industry Association. He has over 40 years of experience in the tire industry and has created programs to help train over 180,000 technicians.