A New Mexico jury has ordered one of the nation’s largest fleets, Werner Enterprises (No. 11 on the CCJ Top 250), to pay $40.5 million in damages related to a 2017 fatal crash involving a Werner truck and driver.
The damages will be awarded to the family of Kathryn Armijo, who was killed in a February 2017 crash in which a Werner driver crossed four lanes of traffic and a paved median before colliding head-on with Armijo’s vehicle. The court found Werner, the driver and his trainer to be negligent leading up to the crash.
In a statement, Werner President and CEO Derek Leathers said the company offers “condolences and prayers” to the family. “The accident that resulted in the tragic loss of Kathryn Armijo was the result of a brief moment of operator error by the Werner driver. The Werner driver was not distracted, fatigued or impaired in any way. In every sense, it simply was an accident,” Leathers said in the statement.
Attorneys for Armijo’s family alleged that Werner’s driver training practices were inadequate and had a “systematic disregard for basic safety policies and training of new drivers.”
According to court documents, the truck was driven by Felipe Jose Johnson, of Apopka, Florida. The crash occurred while Johnson was driving eastbound on I-10 near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Court documents state Johnson drifted from the right-hand lane to the left-hand lane and into the paved median before entering the westbound travel lanes and striking Armijo head-on.
“Due to Johnson’s lack of training at Werner as well as inadequate education at Roadmasters, Johnson not only lost control of the 18-wheeler, but was unable to regain control,” the complaint alleges.
The complaint filed in August 2018 says Johnson was a recent graduate of the Werner-owned Roadmaster Drivers School and was a student driver for Werner at the time of the crash. It also notes Johnson had only been driving for Werner for eight days when the crash occurred.
Documents also alleged that as part of Werner’s Student Driver Training Program, Johnson was driving with trainer Gabriel Perez, who was required to observe Johnson for at least 30 hours in his first five days. Johnson was also required to observe Perez for at least 10 hours during the same time period. Additionally, Johnson was barred from driving the truck without the trainer being present, court documents note.
The complaint alleged that between Feb. 16, 2017, and Feb. 23, 2017 – the day of the crash – Johnson drove approximately 64% of the time unsupervised, and “Perez and Johnson both logged zero observation time.” The complaint also alleges that Johnson and his trainer were assigned just-in-time loads, effectively requiring them to run team operations and “forego necessary observation time and training.”
Of the $42.5 million in damages awarded to the Armijo family, $10 million are considered punitive and are considered punishment to Werner.
This is the second “nuclear verdict” against Werner in the last two years. In May 2018, a Texas jury found Werner liable for a crash, awarding the family of the crash victims $89.7 million. American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear at the organization’s annual conference earlier this month vowed to fight back against such large verdicts, citing last year’s Werner case as an example.
“We’re fed up, and I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of playing defense while trial lawyers buy jets and yachts at the expense of trucking jobs,” Spear said at the conference. “It’s time to go on the offensive and tell our story to policymakers. It’s time to take the Hill.”