Nuclear verdicts are changing the trucking industry — and not in a good way. 

A $411 million judgment against a Florida trucking company1 is one of the more recent examples of so-called “nuclear” verdicts, which are jury awards against transportation companies of more than $10 million.

The number of nuclear verdicts represents a worrying trend for the transportation industry: There have been nearly 300 nuclear verdicts against trucking fleets in the last five years, compared to just 26 between 2006 and 2011. 2

The increase has made excess and umbrella insurers, who bear the brunt of runaway judgements, more cautious. This caution has manifest itself with more than reduced coverage limits and terms. Before renewing coverage, insurance carriers are asking transportation companies to show they’re reducing the risk of a nuclear verdict.

Lessons learned from nuclear verdicts

For fleet carriers, the following best practices serve as lessons learned from nuclear verdicts:

Create a culture of safety. Every employee must be aware that unsafe acts will not be tolerated. This message must come from the top and permeate all layers of the organization.

Avoid the Reptile Theory. The Reptile Theory is a common plaintiff tactic in which they establish a pattern of risky driver behavior prior to an accident. Remove this risk through rewarding safe drivers and holding unsafe drivers accountable for their actions.

Improve hiring and onboarding. Safety should be a major area of focus during hiring and onboarding drivers to immediately spell out expectations and potential penalties for safety violations. MVR monitoring, FMCSA Clearinghouse queries, and drug screening are a baseline for any onboarding program. If your business isn’t up-to-date or compliant, a claim can spin out of control.

Create driver incentives. Setting up incentive programs to acknowledge and reward drivers with superior performance can be a major influence on safety.

Report and document. Drivers must report and document a crash as soon as possible. They need to be trained on proper reporting and documentation procedures. Ensure all support personnel understand their roles during a crash.

Have a post-crash protocol. Drivers need to preserve information and data from an accident. Preserve video, telematic and ELD data, as well as applicable supporting documentation. Be prepared to respond to media inquiries. A DOT investigation will follow, so secure all data specific to the driver, including training records, disciplinary action, rewards and accolades, and drug and alcohol test results. Retain all documentation of vehicle repair and maintenance records.

Embrace technology. Telematic systems monitor data on driver behavior and allow companies to identify and correct dangerous driving. Whether collected via in-cab camera or mobile app, making sense of real-time driver data is critical to improve driver performance — and helps prevent a once-in-a lifetime nuclear verdict.

Prepare for escalating claims. A minor rear-end accident with a car sustained $8,000 in vehicle damage, but it soon became an $8 million claim when a back-seat passenger sustained a spinal cord injury. Strong claims advocacy, proper documentation, and immediate drug screening post-accident makes it a lot easier to advocate for the business should a claim escalate.

Excess liability insurance helps transportation companies prepare for claims in which primary auto and other insurance coverages are insufficient. If a nuclear claim hits your company, it may force you to close up shop — unless you have excess liability insurance. HUB Drive Excess Liability Shield offers such coverage, helping protect transportation companies from nuclear verdicts.

Contact your HUB Transportation expert for more information on how to implement best practices to avoid nuclear verdicts.

[1] Risk & Insurance, “Zoom Jury Awards $411 Million Nuclear Verdict to Injured Motorcyclist — One of the Largest Virtual Verdicts to Date,” January 4, 2021.

[2] American Transportation Research Institute, Understanding the Impact of Nuclear Verdicts on the Trucking Industry, June 2020.