Trailer Manufacturer Hit With $18.9M Judgement in “Wrongful Death” Side Underride Suit
Santa Fe, NM – A Santa Fe jury slapped Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co. (UTM) with an $18.9 million judgement after it found the company was partially negligent in the November 2015 crash death of a 16-year-old high school student.
On November 13, 2015, Riley Hein was traveling westbound in the right lane along I-40 through Tijeras Canyon when a tractor-trailer operating beside him veered into his lane.
As the two vehicles negotiated a corner, Hein’s Honda passenger vehicle became wedged underneath the UTM semi-trailer.
According to investigators, Hein’s vehicle was dragged approximately a half-mile and scraped along a concrete barrier before the Honda burst into flames.
Hein reportedly suffered burns over 75% of his body and was declared dead on the scene.
In June 2016, Hein’s parents, Eric and Wendy, filed a wrongful death suit naming Choptank Transport, GNB Trucking, Barkandhi Express and the New Mexico Department of Transportation as defendants.
The Heins would later settle privately with each of the above named defendants, but the family filed a second amended complaint September 18, 2017, naming UTM as a defendant.
The suit alleged the company sold a “dangerous and defective product” that contributed to Riley’s death because it was not equipped with side underride guards.
The Heins argued that a side underride guard could have saved Riley’s life and therefore UTM was at least partially negligent.
UTM contended the company is under no such requirement to sell its trailers equipped with side underride guards.
Further, the trailer manufacturer asserted it has not been proven that side underride guards would have prevented Riley’s death.
Additionally, the company argued side impact guards have not been shown to be “technologically or economically feasible.”
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After a two-week trial, the jury found that UTM and the truck driver, who was no longer a party in the suit, were negligent in Riley’s death.
The verdict assessed damages of $42 million – $38 million to his Riley’s estate and $2 million each for Eric and Wendy for loss of consortium.
Further, the jury apportioned the truck driver with 55% of the blame, while UTM was deemed to be 45% responsible.
Since the driver was not a defendant, his share won’t be paid.
However, UTM’s portion is $18.9 million.
Following the verdict, Mike Sievers, attorney for the family, said the Heins hope the jury’s decision “sends a message” to semi-trailer manufacturers to address the issue.
“They wanted a verdict to tell the industry they need to do something about this problem,” he was quoted by the Albuquerque Journal as saying.
Heins Are Pushing For Passage of Stop Underrides Act
Since Riley’s death, the Heins have become safety activists pushing for the requirement that side underride guards be mandated on all heavy duty commercial big rigs.
The couple has been lobbying for the passage of recently re-introduced bi-partisan legislation authored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) called the “Stop Underrides Act” (S.665).
U.S. Reps. Steven Cohen (D-TN) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) introduced HR1511 into the U.S. House of Representatives mirroring the Senate bill.
Trucking industry groups such as the American Trucking Associations and the Owner Operator Independent Driver’s Association have been fierce critics of the new push to mandate side underride guards.
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READ more about the push to mandate side underride guards HERE.