The COVID-19 crisis isn’t the type of tunnel one enters with an optimistic eye. After all, a global enemy infecting more than seven million people to date and killing hundreds of thousands is difficult to look beyond. Likewise, as proven in the U.S. economy, a crisis of COVID-19’s magnitude can destroy businesses that have taken decades to build.
The adage “every cloud has a silver lining” is not on many people’s minds amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But if it does hold true, which industries could emerge stronger than before 2020 began? Anecdotal evidence suggests the silver lining is actually chrome — dual stacks and trim of the 18-wheelers traveling America’s highways. Public opinion of the trucking industry appears to be on the upswing, maybe as high as when truck drivers became cultural icons of the 1970s. Will this upswing in public appreciation for truck drivers hold? If so, the industry stands to benefit. Ultimately, if the industry is thanked for its efforts, an indicator could be in the courtrooms, where juries have increasingly returned “nuclear” verdicts against the industry.
The shift in public opinion has been a long time coming. Crises tend to pull the veil from decades of misconceptions and negative publicity. 2020 may become the year truck drivers attained a status like that of first responders — heroes, or at least doers of heroic deeds.
“No one thinks of trucks until they are needed,” said Interstate Trucker Ltd. and Drivers Legal Plan President Brad Klepper. “COVID-19 has shown how important trucking is in the U.S. Medical supplies are delivered by truck. Without truck drivers at work, the health care system can’t do its job.”
Public-opinion surveys as recent as last October deemed trucks and drivers menaces of highways. But as the COVID-19 crisis spread, a change was felt.
“I think public opinion has changed,” said Klepper. “The bias I’ve seen against truckers has decreased the last few months.”
The role of the trucking industry in the U.S. has shone brightly this year. Americans seem to recognize it. Billboards offering thanks to truck drivers have popped up along highways, and strangers have often gone out of their way to thank these newfound “Knights of the Highway.” Politicians, including President Donald J. Trump, have even come out in support of the industry.
Klepper wonders if changing perceptions will affect jury deliberations when truck drivers are the defendants.
“When it comes down to it, 12 individuals, legally considered the defendant’s peers, decide a case. Truck drivers’ ‘peers’ have probably brought a negative bias to the courtroom. Identifying enough jurors with neutral opinions is difficult,” he said.
A driver is seldom the sole defendant in a case, as insurance companies hold stake in the verdict. Americans might have had a negative view of truck drivers, but insurance companies receive even less respect. Dealing with an insurance company can bring much more aggravation than an accident.
“Defending a driver is difficult enough,” Klepper shared. “When insurance companies are involved, it’s an uphill battle.” Klepper estimates that even in the most solid cases attorneys defend, their success rate is only 70%.
When an insurer meets its obligations, the result is normally a skyrocketing premium or outright policy cancellation. Crippling premiums can prevent truck drivers from fulfilling their “heroic” role.
Some insurers became more difficult to work with after personal-injury lawyers entered the scene. Their skills at encouraging juries to return “nuclear” verdicts against the trucking industry, as well as their marketing efforts based on successes, have helped shape the public’s perception of trucking.
The tactics an attorney uses to reverse fault in an accident are simple. One Midwest law firm openly explains its approach to vilifying truck drivers on its website. Fault in an accident, according to the firm’s site, does not necessarily rest with either driver; instead, the truck is at fault. For instance, the law firm claims that in cases where 18-wheelers are equipped with “truck underride guards” (TUGs), the number of fatal accidents plummets. The firm claims federal safety standards require TUGs on specific trucks but not all. It also notes the FMCSA is considering strengthening requirements to include TUGs on the front, rear, and sides of all trucks. In other words, the attorney’s argument is that the law does not necessarily require TUGs in all situations, but it should.
While insurance companies hold a tremendous stake in verdicts involving freight carriers, if the improved public image of truck drivers it real, it may show up in the numbers — the percentages of cases won and the damages awarded when cases are lost.
It is too soon to decide if the public’s rediscovered support for truck drivers will carry into courtrooms. But with government officials and business owners lauding them as heroes, will lawyers continue viewing the industry as a rolling ATM machine? Klepper’s outlook is one of hope surrounded by pure speculation.
“No matter how solid a case an attorney representing a truck driver presents,” he shared, “validity of the evidence can’t overcome bad facts put forth by personal injury lawyers.”
The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic may be that the bias against truck drivers permanently decreases. For now, though, those monitoring the truck-versus-personal-injury-lawyer battle may find counting billboards to be the most accurate barometer of public opinion. A window does appear to be open, and the trucking industry may climb through it. If so, at least COVID-19 will have left something positive in its wake.
“The trucking industry needs to capitalize on any improvement in public opinion and push it for all its worth,” Klepper said.