When a family member is killed or seriously injured in a crash with a tractor trailer, a normal human instinct is to wait a decent interval before consulting an attorney. Then one may be inclined to take one’s time talking with a hometown lawyer who handles an occasional car wreck case along with divorces, criminal cases and real estate closings. Meanwhile, trucking companies and their insurance companies are busy burying incriminating evidence.
A recent case in our office illustrates the importance of striking hard and fast to preserve evidence. While a truck crash victim was in ICU at the local hospital for three days, lingering in a coma on the front porch of eternity, a relative reached out to one of my colleagues who immediately brought me into the case.
While the undamaged truck was still in police impound, we immediately filed a petition in the Superior Court of the county where the crash occurred for temporary restraining order to lock down a long list of physical and electronic evidence for expert inspection. We recovered telematic data that proved the truck was going 10 MPH over the speed limit, still accelerating, until it crashed into a line of cars stopped at a red light.
We also recovered from the truck dashcam and driver view video. It dramatically showed in split screen the truck speeding into the line of stopped cars without slowing or braking while the truck driver idly gazed around with bleary eyes. That video concluded with our victim’s car exploding into the truck’s windshield.
If we had not acted quickly to obtain a court order to preserve evidence, much of that critically important data would have been “lost” and we never would have seen it.
I really wanted to try that case before a jury. Our focus groups felt the case was worth an impressive amount in “high eight figures.” But the clients chose to accept a confidential settlement in the “high seven figures” rather than go through the emotional ordeal of trial. I cannot argue with the family’s choice for quiet closure.
Standard operating procedure for trucking companies and insurers is to send a rapid response team to the crash scene before the vehicles are removed, sometimes before an ambulance can remove a victim. The rapid response team generally includes a defense lawyer, investigator and accident reconstruction expert. They work under the cloak of trial preparation under the supervision of legal counsel in an effort to keep their work secret.
When a victim’s traumatized family is in a hospital vigil or planning a funeral, the trucking company’s insurer has a rapid response team combing over the evidence. They may persuade police investigators to see the defense point of view and quietly delete telematics and video data that would be damning.
By the time the victim’s family hires a lawyer who knows anything about litigation of serious truck accident cases, the most important evidence may have disappeared. We have had cases where truck driver logs and other critical evidence was “lost” while State Troopers were focused on directing traffic and removing debris from the highway and a rapid response team combed over the truck.
Another mistake that families of victims often make is to choose a lawyer who does not litigate serious truck crash cases. That may a good hometown lawyer who handles regular car wreck cases but does not have expertise in trucking. Or it may be a “personal injury settlement mill” that advertises heavily but just tries to flip cases fast to get the easy money without of serious work.
That includes law firms that run expensive television ads and billboards with pictures of big trucks. They may claim to have legions of trucking lawyers, but are not involved in any of the national organizations of trucking law experts and do not do the serious work involved in such cases. If those firms can’t settle easily, they may associate a trucking specialist, but by then evidence is likely lost.
Too often families of crash victims, not knowing any better, hire a lawyer who solicits them directly or through an agent or “runner” in the days after the crash. Such solicitation of victims is an ethical violation punishable by disbarment in Georgia. If you want to hire a lawyer who is willing to commit a major ethical violation in order to get the case, remember that when you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas.
The Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys is a great place to find a real trucking attorney.
If a family member is the victim of a catastrophic truck crash in the Southeast, call us at (404)253-7863.
Mr. Shigley is the first Georgia lawyer to earn three national board certifications in his practice area from the National Board of Trial Advocacy – in Civil Trial Law, Civil Practice Law and Truck Accident Law. He is a board member of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys, and former chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section, which includes the Trucking Litigation Group.
He is lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice, now in its tenth annual edition with Thomson Reuters West. His law practice is focused on catastrophic injury and wrongful death including those arising from commercial trucking accidents and those involving brain, neck, back, spinal cord, amputation and burn injuries.
In 2011-12, Mr. Shigley was president of the State Bar of Georgia, which includes all the lawyers and judges in Georgia. He also is a former chair of the Institute for Legal Education in Georgia (board member 2008-2019, chair 2012-13), State Bar of Georgia Tort & Insurance Practice Section (1994-95), and the Georgia Insurance Law Institute (1994).
A former prosecutor and former insurance defense lawyer, Mr. Shigley is a graduate of Furman University and Emory University Law School. He is a widower, father of two adult children, and an elder in his church.