Trucking Giant Agrees to Pay $36 MILLION to Settle Crash Lawsuit
Cook County, IL – Trucking giant Universal Logistics Holdings has agreed to pay $36 million to settle litigation stemming from a serious crash involving one of its truck drivers.
The announcement of the settlement comes after a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court issued its decision on September 24, 2019 to uphold an Indiana court’s verdict which awarded plaintiffs, James and Theresa Denton, more than $54 million in punitive and compensatory damages.
As part of the agreement, Universal will pay $36 million in cash to the plaintiffs, in addition to the already $7 million it paid to stay enforcement of the judgement in September 2018.
The truck driver involved in the 2011 accident, David Lee Johnson, of South Carolina, was employed by Universal Am-Can LTD (UACL), a subsidiary of Universal, at the time of the crash.
According to court records, the crash occurred on February 8, 2011 along southbound I-65 in Jasper County, Indiana.
An 88-year-old motorist, George Kallis, now deceased, drove the wrong way which caused numerous vehicles to swerve to the sides and off of the roadway to avoid him.
Numerous collisions occurred involving a total of seven vehicles.
Motorist James Denton was unable to avoid colliding with a tractor-trailer in front of him.
Denton’s vehicle struck the side of the rig and and slid sideways, according to investigators.
Johnson was operating a tractor-trailer in the left lane behind Denton’s initial crash.
According to testimony, Johnson was traveling above the speed limit and on a suspended license at the time.
Unaware of the wrong way driver and the crash ahead of him, Johnson failed to slow and smashed into Denton’s vehicle pushing it into the fuel tank of the other big rig.
Denton testified, “I sure did feel it because I hit his fuel tanks and diesel fuel went everywhere, including all over me, the inside of the car, my eyes, everywhere.”
Denton managed to extricate himself through the passenger window and was transported to a nearby hospital.
According to court documents, Denton suffered from multiple traumatic injuries, resulting in post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.
Denton underwent nine surgeries which included spinal fusions, as well as three knee surgeries.
He now has a prosthetic metal knee.
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In addition, Denton sustained severe nerve damage and consequently had spinal surgery to open his nerve canals, which was unsuccessful.
Due to the nerve damage, Denton experienced urinary incontinence and ultimately sustained a neurogenic bladder.
Denton regularly has to catheterize himself and wear adult diapers, which, in turn, has negatively impacted his marriage and strained relationships with his children and grandchildren, his lawyers claim.
Further, Denton has been unable to work since the accident and regularly takes Norco to manage his pain as an alternative to wearing fentanyl patches, which left him with debilitating side effects.
He also continues to see a counselor for depression and anxiety, court records show.
Johnson applied for a truck driving job with UACL on January 19, 2010.
His application was initially rejected by a UACL safety coordinator due to the fact Johnson had been convicted of a felony within the previous ten years.
UACL’s hiring and safety standards required candidates to be eliminated from consideration if they had been convicted of a felony in the previous ten year period.
In addition to the felony conviction, Johnson had a litany of offenses on his driving record.
For instance, within three years of applying to UACL, Johnson was involved in four accidents, had three moving violations, and had his license suspended twice.
Within 10 years, he was employed by seven different companies, though his application listed only six.
Johnson’s application listed one termination and he would later testify that he was never fired.
However, court records show Johnson was actually terminated from four of those seven companies for reasons that included tailgating a motorist, a felony conviction, too many points on his license, and crashing into a vehicle after refusing to let it merge onto an interstate ramp.
Regarding the last incident, Johnson testified, “I don’t have to let nobody off a ramp.”
However, despite the lengthy list of offenses, UACL safety director, Doug Moat, chose to hire Johnson anyway on February 3, 2010.
According to court documents, Moat deemed Johnson a “marginal candidate” and testified that UACL was forced to accept “marginal drivers” in order to make a profit.
Still, Moat conceded, Johnson “never should have been allowed to drive a UACL rig” under the company’s standards.
Upon being hired by UACL, Johnson waited nearly a month to attend the company’s mandatory safety orientation.
UACL issued Johnson five warning violations and placed him on a six-month probation.
Moat informed Johnson that he must attend a safety meeting before he could be dispatched and any additional moving violations, accidents or safety incidents during his probation would result in his termination.
According to case records, Johnson failed to attend the mandatory safety meeting and, within weeks, received a speeding ticket, three moving violations, a logbook violation, and had his license suspended over the next nine months.
UACL not only continued to employ Johnson, but it also dispatched Johnson while his license was suspended.
Moat testified that after Johnson was hired, UACL “never ran” his motor vehicle report or monitored his license, which meant that UACL never made itself aware of the various deficiencies detailed there, court documents say.
The Verdict and Settlement
The lower court’s verdict found Johnson and UACL’s negligence led to the crash.
Further, the jury also found UACL was negligent in both its hiring and retention of Johnson.
The jury found zero fault with Kallis for driving the wrong way.
The court awarded Denton, and his wife Theresa, a total of $16,095,900 in compensatory damages and another $35 million in punitive damages.
The Illinois First District Appellate Court upheld the Indiana court’s decision on September 24.
Instead of continuing to litigate the matter, UACL agreed to pay $36 million in cash in addition to the already $7 million it has previously paid.
As part of the agreement, UACL did not admit any fault.
In a statement to shareholders, UACL said, “the Final Denton Settlement does not constitute an admission by the Company of any fault or liability, and the Company does not admit any fault or liability.”
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