This past Friday, a wrongful death suit was filed in Alabama on behalf of Jordan Mays Matson. Ms. Matson lost her life October 20, 2015 in a collision with an 18-wheeler. What makes this lawsuit different from a typical 18-wheeler wrongful death suit is that in addition to the truck driver and trucking company, a manufacturer, Meritor WABCO Vehicle Control Systems is also named as a defendant.
According to the suit, the 18-wheeler was unable to brake in time to avoid the fatal collision with Ms. Matson's vehicle due to a defective modulator valve, which regulates air flow in the truck's braking system. If the allegations are to be believed, then something in the design or production of the valve modulator is faulty, meaning that this could affect more than just those involved in this case.
Examining the Likelihood of a Defective Meritor WABCO Modulator Valve
Some may wonder, if modulator valve failure is the cause of the accident, why is the truck driver and trucking company still named in the lawsuit? It appears that the plaintiffs allege that the operator of the vehicles knew about the problem, which essentially rendered them without an effective braking system, but chose to operate the truck anyway. This knowledge means that they could potentially share in the liability for the accident.
Normally, I'm pretty skeptical when I see a manufacturer included in a lawsuit. Sometimes it is a shot in the dark to enable a plaintiff to find a financially viable defendant, so that they may recover some compensation for their injuries. However, in a commercial truck accident that incentive just doesn't exist. Commercial trucks are insured for at least $750,000 per federal regulations. Many states, including Texas, mandate additional insurance on top of that. With that much money on the line, it doesn't make sense to muddy up a straight-forward claim, by bringing in dubious allegations a manufacturer.
Added weight is given to this line of reasoning since Alabama authorities are criminally prosecuting the truck driver in this accident for criminally negligent homicide. This means that prosecutors believe that they can convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver was knowingly operating with a faulty brake system. While criminal cases have no bearing on civil compensation, if a prosecutor feels they can meet the burdensome criminal standard, winning a civil case, where the standard is a preponderance of the evidence should be a much easier affair.
Given the weight of evidence that appears to be on the side of Ms. Matson's family's claim, only a foolish lawyer would muddy up the waters by including a defendant on flimsy evidence. Such a strategy would be playing with fire. Juries aren't foolish. On the whole, they're average citizens who understand the gravity of their responsibilities and execute them with great care. When an attorney puts someone before them as negligent in an accident, they expect evidence. When that evidence doesn't come it tends to upset jury. When you get down to it, blaming someone without evidence is a great way to cast doubt on the legitimacy of all the evidence you present.
What does all of this have to do with whether or not the modulator valve was defective? While we don't know what evidence they have that the modulator valve failed, piecing together the circumstances surrounding this case, it is probably that their is some merit to the accusation.
Another issue to consider is just how specific the accusation of this particular product defect is. There are literally dozens of parts in an air brake system. An attorney who is thorough enough in their investigation to track down this specific failure is most likely skilled enough to know that including an unnecessary defendant has the potential to sabotage what appears to be an otherwise slam-dunk case.
When all the circumstances are taken together, it seems that it is quite likely that the modulator valve was defective.
How Widespread Is the Problem of Defective Meritor WABCO Modulator Valves?
Without seeing the evidence in the case, it is impossible to determine just how widespread the problem of defective Meritor WABCO modulator valves is. Since court documents are not yet readily available, we can't even begin to judge the merits of the allegations. What we can do is lay ponder potential liability scenarios and discuss how widespread each one would be.
Assuming that the plaintiffs can prove their case that the modulator valves were defective and led to the accident, the best case scenario for Meritor WABCO is that it is a one off failure. Despite the ridiculously stringent quality control procedures in place for the best U.S. manufacturers, it is possible that a single bad part was produced in the factory and slipped through quality control measures. Just as some cars are lemons and never function properly from the time they roll off the assembly line, bad parts make their way into the stream of commerce.
Some would say that this is a fact of life and that we should just deal with it, but products liability law clearly places the burden on manufacturers to ensure that this doesn't happen.
Things could be far more serious if the failure is the result of a design defect. If the product's design is the culprit, that could mean that any vehicle that has a Meritor WABCO modulator valve may be at risk for catastrophic brake failure. This would mean that hundreds or thousands of 18-wheelers would then be at risk of not being able to stop in a timely manner. No one needs me to tell them how dangerous 80,000 lbs. of truck, trailer, and cargo can be without proper braking. I would caution against reading too much into this potential scenario until more evidence comes in, but the possibility exists.
Between those two extremes lies a myriad of other possibilities, from substandard materials to a bad batch of modulator valves. While these would affect more commercial trucks than the lemon scenario, they would not necessarily involve as many vehicles as a design defect. Ultimately, there is just not enough information out there to reliably answer how widespread this problem could be.
Investigations and Truck Accident Attorneys
One of the issues that most people are unaware of when it comes to trucking accidents is that many personal injury attorneys may only handle one or two 18-wheeler accident cases throughout their entire career. The rest of the time is usually spent dealing with car accident cases. Given that the damages in a commercial truck accident and the insurance these trucks carry can be 30 times what is found in passenger car accident cases, a single truck accident case can literally make many attorneys' entire years.
The financial incentive, combined with a lack of experience can often have unfortunate consequences for those injured in commercial truck accidents. This case is the perfect illustration of how the right attorney, one who has handled dozens, or even hundreds, of truck accident cases can make an enormous difference.
In a typical car accident case, where the amount of compensation is generally limited to the value of the policy, usually the state minimum, it doesn't always make sense to hire an expert engineer to examine the wreckage. The cost of the expert would eat into too much of the compensation that the victim needs to pay household expenses and hospital bills for it to be an effective strategy. That is why unless there is compelling evidence to indicate a defect in the first place, these experts are rarely brought in to investigate non-commercial car accidents.
However, the larger limits on commercial insurance policies mean that it is often necessary to examine all of the vehicles involved in an accident for possible defects in order to leave no stone un-turned. The problem arises when an attorney without a lot of experience in commercial truck accidents gets involved. They're used to car accidents, which despite their similarities, are actually worlds apart from commercial truck accidents. This means that many attorneys who handle hundreds of car accident cases, will often attempt to handle commercial truck accident cases the same way they handle car accidents. Crucially for victims, this can mean forgetting to hire an expert engineer to examine the vehicles in the accident.
Thankfully for Ms. Matson's family, they appear to have found an experienced truck accident attorney, who thoroughly investigated the accident, which is likely the only reason they discovered the defective modulator valve. As a result of their work, the Matson family stands a chance to be more thoroughly compensated for their loss than they would have been with a less experienced truck accident attorney, and just as importantly, everyone who contributed to their loss can now be held accountable.
One other note about this case; truck accident attorneys are held in pretty low-esteem by a fair number of truckers. This is understandable, because no one is usually a fan of people who sue members of their profession. In the minds of some truck drivers, the mere fact that we sue bad truck drivers makes us anti-trucker. Nothing could be further from the truth. Truck accident attorneys on the whole are very pro-trucker, but anti-bad truckers.
Looking at the allegations in this case, the driver of the truck in this accident allegedly knew that he didn't have functioning brakes, but continued to operate anyway. It cost a young woman her life, but it could have just as easily been a hard-working, honest trucker who was struck instead. Truck accident attorneys know that the vast majority of accidents where a truck driver is at fault, especially fatal truck accidents, are caused by a very small minority of truck drivers.
Making these drivers and the companies who employ them feel the consequences of their actions not only makes the road safer for passenger cars, but it also makes it a less dangerous people for the great men and women who make their living driving commercial trucks. It means that everyone is much more likely to make it home to their family at the end of the day and to my thinking, nothing could be more pro-trucker.
Ultimately, this trial will be worth keeping an eye on for two reasons. First, and most important to see that the Matson family gets the justice they are entitled to. Secondly, the evidence in this trial will determine just how far-reaching the Meritor WABCO air brake modulator problem is.