When a Cobb County jury returned a $40 million verdict in Foster v. Landstar Ranger, Inc., et al. in September 2011, it sent a shockwave through the trucking industry and the legal community. Big verdicts against trucking companies are nothing new, but not in one of the most conservative venues in Georgia, where there had been only one 7-figure verdict in a motor vehicle accident case previously. This article discusses statistics on recent Georgia verdicts against trucking companies, the Foster case, and some thoughts on how it may impact similar cases.
The Foster Case
Theresa Foster was a back seat passenger in her husband’s pick-up truck when a tractor-trailer ran a stop sign and struck their vehicle. The crash killed her husband and his front seat passenger. Mrs. Foster sustained fractures to her sternum, ribs, and vertebrae. The truck driver, who was convicted of vehicular homicide, could not explain why he failed to stop despite having good visibility and the presence of advance warning signs. Defendants admitted liability before the 2-week trial.
At the time of his death, Mr. Foster was 45-years-old, had been in business for 20 years, and had earned $470,000 in each of the five years before his death. Witnesses testified that Mr. Foster’s annual income would have increased to $1.8 million based on a business venture that came to fruition two years after his death. At trial, plaintiff presented future lost income projections of $15-42 million. The jury returned a verdict after five hours of deliberation, awarding $11.2 million to Mrs. Foster for her physical and emotional pain and suffering, $28.7 million for the full value of Mr. Foster’s life; and $265,000 for his pre-impact fright, shock, and terror. Defendants say they will appeal, arguing that evidence of projected future earnings based on a business venture that did not exist at the time of the crash is too speculative. Unless it is overturned on appeal, the $40 million verdict in Foster will be the largest ever net verdict against a trucking company in Georgia.
Other Recent Georgia Verdicts
Of the 34 reported truck-accident cases in Georgia since 2008, there were 6 defense verdicts; 14 verdicts below $1 million; 8 verdicts of $1-3 million; 2 verdicts of $5-8 million; 3 verdicts of $10-20.2 million; and the $40 million Foster verdict. Of those 34 cases, seven involved fatality crashes; the other 27 involved non-fatality injury (NFI) crashes of varying severity. Using the Foster case as the high, the average verdict is $3.4 million. Dividing the cases by fatality or NFI, however, yields a very different result: the average verdict in death cases is $10.9 million, and the average verdict in NFI cases is $1.4 million.
Thoughts on Foster’s Impact
Defendants and their insurers should expect that plaintiff lawyers will use Foster (and other recent verdicts in historically conservative venues) to argue for more lucrative settlements. In evaluating cases for settlement or trial, however, it is important to look beyond the raw verdicts in order to distinguish your case. To that end, Foster can and should be viewed as yielding two verdicts: A $29 million verdict for Mr. Foster’s death and an $11 million verdict for Mrs. Foster’s injuries. Then, one has to ask if either would exist without the other.
First, Mr. Foster’s actual earnings history of $470,000/year (instead of the $1.8 million/year based on a business deal that came to be after his death) yielded an 8-figure number that, it seems, could have occurred in almost any jurisdiction, with or without Mrs. Foster’s claim for her own injuries. Second, the $11 million award for Mrs. Foster’s physical injuries with medical expenses of only $22,000 and the emotional injury of being in her husband’s presence when he died would not have occurred, it seems, without the wrongful death claim, even in the most liberal of jurisdictions.
While Cobb County’s population increased by 13.2% between 2000 and 2010 it has not experienced significant changes in its economy or demographics. In fact, Mrs. Foster’s lawyer said he liked Cobb County as the venue for his case because jurors there understand and appreciate what it takes to build and sustain a successful business. Nevertheless, the case has lessons to be learned that apply beyond the borders of this particular jurisdiction.