Last week, a Georgia federal jury popped a motor carrier liability insurer and its insured with a $21 million verdict in a wrongful death suit. According to the Complaint, the insured driver lost control of his tractor-trailer while driving on Georgia Highway 369. As a result, the trailer disconnected and overturned, injuring a pedestrian walking along the highway’s shoulder. The pedestrian eventually succumbed to his injuries, and his estate filed suit against the driver and the driver’s insurer under Georgia’s Direct Action Statute, which allows plaintiffs to name motor carrier insurers as defendants along with their insureds.
The driver claimed that he experienced a sudden medical emergency just before the accident, and he was found passed out in his cab afterwards. The jury was unconvinced by this “Act of God” defense and took less than an hour to return an initial verdict of approximately $15 million for wrongful death, pain and suffering, and medical expenses. The jury then added $6 million to the judgment for litigation expenses after hearing evidence that the driver’s post-accident drug screen found opioids in his system.
According to the defendants’ pre-trial briefing, plaintiff demanded settlement for the policy’s $1 million limit during the litigation, which defendants refused. In the event the plaintiff also made a valid, pre-suit demand, the insurer may face additional bad faith liability for its apparent refusal to settle within policy limits. The case is Estate of Holland v. Cypress Insurance Company, No. 2:17-CV-0120 (N.D. Ga., filed June 8, 2017).
So-called “nuclear verdicts” like this one helped to place Georgia on the American Tort Reform Foundation’s 2018-2019 list of “Judicial Hellholes.” Risk managers should update any analysis that ranks Georgia as a low-risk venue and insist that their company’s insurers seriously consider any reasonable settlement demand within policy limits.