How Trucking Companies Hide Behind Intentional Tort Arguments

Michael GrossmanFebruary 01, 2017 6 minutes

By paying a monthly fee to an insurance agency, people essentially place a bet that something bad will happen to them or their property. To "win" on that bet, the insured must first actually lose by incurring serious damages. Depending on the policy in question, that could be anything from a home ruined by a flood to a car totaled by a crash, all the way to severe bodily harm or death. However, insurance compensation hinges on the idea that the damaging incident was an accident--that is, it was not an intentional act of harm. Insurance is meant to be a method of guarding against the unforeseen, but that distinction provides insurers something of a flexible argument against paying some claimants.

This happens on occasion to people injured in trucking accidents, where a driver of a tractor-trailer runs into a smaller passenger vehicle on the road. In a clash between a vehicle that weighs under 10 tons and one that weighs over 40, it's been proven many times that the latter tends to fare better than the former. Victims of these collisions attempt to obtain compensation from the truckers' insurance providers, only to be told that the commercial policy does not cover intentional acts of harm.

Those exemptions make sense if the truckers commit an act of wanton violence, like a murder or assault. While any such act is abhorrent, it represents malice and direct violence on the part of the individual. Such incidents aren't typically covered by a trucker's policy, as they aren't really accidents. However, a trucker's harmful actions while driving on company time should be considered as grounds for liability, even if an argument for intentional torts could be made. This concept came up in conversation here at the firm as we discussed the details of a recent truck accident that made the news.

Seymour, Missouri and a Trucker on a Holy Mission

On Wednesday, January 25, a tractor-trailer allegedly slammed into the back of a pickup truck in Seymour, MO. A witness statement suggests that the truck driver did not try to engage the brakes before hitting the pickup at a red light on U.S. Highway 60, just before West Clinton Avenue. Another statement indicated seeing the trucker holding his cellphone to his ear just before the crash.

The force of the rear-end collision violently pushed the pickup forward, where its cab collided with another semi-trailer in front of it at the light. The pickup's two occupants, 48-year-old Tisha Briggs and 47-year-old Leo Walker, were pronounced dead at the scene.

Responding officers believed the trucker, 33-year-old Adam Housley, was exhibiting signs of intoxication. He became physically combative with troopers from the Missouri State Highway Patrol when they approached him after the crash, and had to be wrestled to the ground. Once on the asphalt, Housley reportedly told the officers "God told me to do it" and "It's my destiny." He was charged Thursday with two counts of second-degree murder.

Murder and Intentional Torts

In order to charge a suspect with murder instead of manslaughter, authorities must allege that the offender acted with malice aforethought--intent to seriously harm or kill, or displaying an extremely reckless disregard for life. Put another way, the main difference between murder and manslaughter is the perpetrator's intent, which requires evaluation of his mental state. Housley's allegation that "God told [him] to do it" would provide a convenient reference for defense counsel in a civil trial; given the criminal charges he faces, his employer's insurance provider might have grounds to deny payment to the victims on grounds of intentional tort.

In instances where a truck driver deliberately takes harmful action against other motorists, it seems as though any resultant criminal charges would be entirely deserved. This specific case might require a further look, though, as Housley's mental condition might be called into question. He was allegedly intoxicated when first confronted by state troopers, and it strains credulity to think that anyone would receive specific metaphysical injunctions from The Man Upstairs, much less ones to (allegedly) commit murder behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler.

If it is determined that Housley is of sound mind from a legal standpoint, then the insurance company might have grounds to decline payment to the families of the victims. His allegedly-intentional attack on the vehicle occupied by Briggs and Walker would negate the insurer's precondition that the collision be an accident. Making that declaration is not so straightforward, though, as the company would still have a very important question to answer: What processes did they use to weed out unstable or hazardous drivers?

Reputable trucking firms do their utmost to screen potential drivers for mental and physical instabilities that might affect their driving performance. It's a reasonable requirement that a trucker who will spend long hours on the road have the overall capacity to handle the demands of the job. Drivers receive annual physical checkups, during which doctors are encouraged to assess the drivers' mental condition as well. After all, the nature of the job lends itself to the development and/or exacerbation of certain neuroses like depression, anxiety, insomnia, and personality disorders. If employers do not actively monitor and control the behavior of their drivers, they can often be found liable when truckers act out in harmful ways.

Truckers can't always afford to visit mental health professionals or receive appropriate medications for these disorders. Many truckers try to conceal their mental health issues with self-medication, using alcohol or illegal controlled substances to try and regulate their thoughts and moods. Obviously, this method is extremely unsound, and often makes their conditions worse, not better. One might speculate that Adam Housley faced such circumstances based on the fact pattern; if he did in fact face some form of neurosis and had become intoxicated in an effort to dampen its psychological effects, that is something that should have been flagged by his employer before it could lead to harm.

What Recourse Is Available to Plaintiffs Against Claims of Intentional Tort?

Just because an insurance company is prepared to shrug its shoulders and close the file doesn't mean hope is lost. Further disturbing issues are raised when a truck driver is alleged to have intentionally hurt someone, and it falls to his employer to provide answers.

The legal principle of respondeat superior, or "let the master answer," is often invoked when dealing with commercial-driver injuries. This means that an employer is liable for the actions of its employee as long as the damages happened while he was acting in the course of his job. If a freight driver crashes into a passenger vehicle while en route for a delivery, respondeat superior allows victims to seek damages from his employer, which is more likely to be fiscally viable. If that sounds mercenary, remember that the goal isn't simply money for its own sake, but rather an attempt to seek compensation for damages incurred, such as hospital bills, pain and suffering, and lost wages. The more solvent the defendant, the better chance a plaintiff has of obtaining sufficient compensation to cover his or her expenses.

Respondeat superior lends itself to a further examination of an employer's negligent behaviors--say, in hiring someone with mental instabilities (negligent hiring), as well as not catching these idiosyncrasies at health checkups or evaluations (negligent supervision). Having failed to appropriately vet an employee who intentionally caused harm, the company may open itself to allegations of negligent practices. It behooves a personal injury attorney to examine this possibility.

Consider as a further example the case of a crashed German airline flight in March of 2015. According to evidence gathered at the time, Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 was deliberately crashed into the Alps by its co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who had recently been treated for severe depression and suicidal tendencies. When the captain briefly exited the cockpit, Lubitz promptly locked the door behind him and immediately began the plane's lethal descent to critical altitude. Within ten minutes, the airplane had collided with a mountain. There were no survivors. Lufthansa, the airline that owns Germanwings, initially denied knowing anything about Lubitz's difficulties, but information was later discovered that suggested the company knew about his difficulties as early as 2009. Armed with that information, the company should not have allowed Lubitz to be alone at any point in the cockpit, and conceivably should not have continued to employ him.

Taking Accountability for One's Role

If I sold a gun to a mentally ill individual who then went out and used it to commit murders, I would own a considerable share of the liability for his actions. Is it truly so different to permit a mentally unstable employee to get behind the wheel of a 40-ton semitrailer? At highway speeds, large commercial vehicles are extremely hazardous; last summer's deadly incident in Nice, France is a tragic example.

It is not clear at this time whether Adam Housley's employer knew that he believed he could hear instructions from God. Naturally they will deny any prior awareness of the condition, since admitting they knew would open them up to allegations of negligence. It is difficult to believe that a professional organization could not have perceived such significant issues with a driver, but perhaps his alleged intoxication brought that instability closer to the surface.

An insurer's potential argument that the driver's actions were deliberate and therefore not compensable should not receive much traction in the event that his behavior is clearly influenced by an altered mental state. To suggest that such a driver is entirely within his faculties and should be trusted with a large explosion-powered projectile is to disregard the evidence of Tisha Briggs' and Leo Walker's case. At the very least, if a liability insurance policy will not pay, the errant driver's employer should be considered accountable for releasing him onto the road in the name of business.