A Texas court of appeals has affirmed a more than $100 million verdict against Werner and one of its drivers in a crash lawsuit.
On Thursday, May 18, the 14th Court of Appeals in Texas ruled in an en banc bench that Werner is liable for more than $100 million for a crash that killed one child and left another a quadriplegic.
Werner driver ‘didn’t do anything wrong’
The full court of appeals order stems from a lawsuit filed by the family of 7-year-old Zachary Blake and Brianna Blake. Zachary was killed in the crash with a Werner truck. Brianna, who was 12 at the time, was rendered a quadriplegic as a result.
The Blakes on Dec. 14, 2014, were traveling east on Interstate 20 in Texas in a pickup truck driven by Zaragoza Salinas. Weather conditions began to worsen, coating the windshield of the pickup truck they were traveling in with ice. While traveling 50-60 mph, a car ahead of them began to fishtail. Salinas lost control and careened across a grass median, entering the westbound lanes.
At this time, Shiraz Ali was driving a truck for Werner going west on I-20. Ali was driving below the speed limit when the pickup truck began to spin. Also present in the Werner truck was Jeff Ackerman, a more senior Werner driver-trainer. According to the appellate brief, Ali quickly reacted within half a second, hitting the brakes.
Even the Blakes’ expert witness conceded that Ali’s reaction was “very quick” and “appropriate to the conditions.”
During the trial, it was revealed that westbound I-20 was not slick like the eastbound lanes due to heavier traffic melting the ice with friction and heat. With the crash reducing traffic and weather conditions worsening, some areas of the westbound lanes became icy. Regardless, the Texas Department of Transportation felt conditions were safe enough to keep the interstate open. Witnesses stated that even though they felt no one should have been driving on I-20 that day, they did not fault Ali for the crash.
In addition to Salinas making statements suggesting guilt and responsibility, a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper defended Ali’s actions. Trooper Villareal, a 17-year veteran who investigated the accident, concluded “this is truly an accident,” Ali “didn’t do anything wrong,” and there was nothing Ali “could have done to avoid the collision.” A higher-ranking trooper who approved the report concurred.
Should Werner driver have been driving that day?
According to court documents, The Blakes’ based their case on the theory that Ali, who received substantial training and was a licensed commercial driver, should not have been on I-20 that day despite it remaining open for public travel. This was argued while successfully objecting to evidence that Salinas lacked a valid driver’s license. The theory was based on Texas’ CDL manual that discusses slippery surfaces.
“(The manual) requires commercial drivers to match their speed to the road surface to ensure they are able to maintain traction and visibility,” Werner argued. “But the Blakes flipped the purpose of this section, claiming it was designed to protect non-CDL drivers (like them) who might lose control and collide with commercial drivers.”
The Blakes’ argument was backed by an expert with no legal or regulatory experience and no employment in trucking in 30 years.
The expert claimed that truckers should drive at around 15 mph and immediately stop driving when possible whenever ice is present on the road, regardless of traction and visibility.
During the trial, the jury heard the following facts:
- Two weeks before his collision with the Blakes’ vehicle, Ali received the second-lowest possible score on an evaluation from a Werner supervisor (an 8 out of 21).
- Ali knew he was driving in “freezing rain” and there was black ice at the scene of Ali’s collision with the Blakes – “it was like a skating rink.”
- Ali drove past the collision Texas Department of Public Safety State Trooper Corey Vanderwilt was working four and a half minutes before he collided with the Blakes’ vehicle. Texas Department of Public Safety Officer Chad Matlock testified that he traveled to the site of Ali’s collision with the Blakes’ vehicle westbound on I-20 and recalled with “hundred percent” certainty that “the roads were icy.”
- James Wampler (a local tow truck driver) was driving between 10 and 15 miles per hour on I-20 that day due to the weather conditions; despite these conditions, Ali was driving his 18-wheeler at approximately 43 miles per hour at the time of his collision with the Blakes.
- Ali’s Werner supervisor (who was in the truck with him) was asleep at the time of the collision. Werner’s director of safety testified that, even with low scores, Ali had “a commercial driver’s license from the state of Texas, so he could drive a truck by himself without anybody in it.”
- There were at least 10 truck stops at which Ali could have stopped between Midland and Odessa.
- Section 2.6.2 in Texas’ CDL manual instructs drivers to reduce their speed to a crawl when they encounter icy roads. A “crawl” in the trucking industry means between 10 and 15 miles per hour.
In July 2018, a jury found Werner 70% liable, Ali 14% liable, and Salina 16% liable. The district court judge signed off on the jury award of nearly $90 million. After interest, Werner owes nearly $92 million while Ali owes nearly $13 million.
Werner appealed the decision. It argued there is insufficient evidence supporting that Ali or Werner proximately caused that crash, especially anything that happened at the company years prior. Werner also argued that by affirming the decision Texas motorists who drive lawfully and below the speed limit can be liable for a crash involving a motorist on the other side of the highway who loses control of his or her vehicle through their own negligence. LL
More Werner news: