On its face, the facts of a 2020 highway crash in Minnesota seemed as simple as they were tragic. A father driving with his two sons was determined to be speeding and driving under the influence when he crashed into a semi-truck.
The motorist was killed instantly, as was one of his sons. The second son survived, but suffered severe brain damage.
The truck driver was unharmed.
The outline of the accident did not lend itself to a positive outcome for a lawsuit on behalf of the surviving child. But that did not discourage the attorneys at Johnson//Becker, who pursued the case on behalf of the child and a court-appointed guardian ad litem.
The attorneys wanted to learn if the truck driver, who had taken a left turn into oncoming traffic, had been paying adequate attention to his driving that day. These efforts were stifled when defense attorneys returned the trucker’s phone, despite being warned not to do so, which he intentionally wiped of all data and replaced with a new one.
Undeterred, Johnson//Becker attorneys subpoenaed the records of an investigation conducted by the county sheriff’s department. An expert hired by the firm examined forensic data of the trucker’s phone captured in those records, and used it to piece together a troubling minute-by-minute reconstruction of the period leading up to the crash.
Records showed that driver had consistently been accessing Facebook and Instagram on his cell phone while driving, logging into both during the 15 minutes prior to the accident. The last Facebook log-in came just 20 seconds before the truck driver called 911 to report the crash. The digital evidence trail contradicted the driver’s statements, both to police and in response to the civil lawsuit, where he denied he had been using his phone at the time of the crash.
He had his reasons not to tell the truth. The trucker’s activity violated both Minnesota and federal law governing the use of cell phones while behind the wheel. Using a handheld device like a phone while driving is a distraction that causes inattention blindness, comparable to the delayed observation and decision-making times of someone driving drunk.
The truck driver’s activity was especially disturbing, given how much deadlier trucks are when compared to normal motor vehicles due to their size, weight, and sluggish maneuverability. His loaded vehicle on that day weighed more than 17,000 pounds, upwards of five times the weight of the other car in the collision.
The day of the accident was not an exception for the driver, evidence recovered from the phone revealed a pattern of using his phone while on the job, despite knowing that it was dangerous and illegal. Distracted driving was a factor in 39,000 crashes in Minnesota between 2016 and 2020, leading to 31 deaths and 192 serious injuries. Under oath, the driver admitted to knowing that using a phone while driving was illegal, unsafe, and increased the risk of causing serious injuries or death.
Though his phone records proved otherwise, the trucker denied using his phone on the day of the crash. Yet, evidence obtained from the phone confirmed that he had accessed Facebook and Instagram while driving during the week proceeding the collision.
These new facts demonstrated the culpability of the truck driver. But what about his employer?
As alleged in a motion by Johnson//Becker attorneys in the case, the commercial trucking company’s behavior was “equally bad and abetted [the truck driver]’s conduct.”
Though the company had a safety policy prohibiting the use of cell phones during a driving shift, calling it “unacceptable,” it lacked monitoring and enforcement to see that the rule was known and followed. Moreover, the truck driver in this case stated he sometimes felt compelled to use his personal phone because the company phone supplied by his employer failed to work properly, even to provide direction to a pick-up or drop-off location.
The truck driver said he had “probably skimmed through” the employee handbook, and had not signed the company policy restricting the use of cell phones. The driver had, however, signed one form agreeing not to use company-issued electronic devices while driving; the agreement did not apply to the personal phone he used before the crash.
Evidencing its lack of concern for the safety of the motoring public, the company did not even employ a dedicated safety director until mid-2021, more than a year after the fatal highway collision. Under questioning from Johnson//Becker attorneys, a high-ranking employee acknowledged that safety policies were often unenforced. That included in the tragic case that killed two, which, inexcusably, the company did not even investigate.
Jake Jagdfeld, one of the Johnson//Becker attorneys who represented the injured, said: “Unfortunately, we find in a lot of these cases the trouble begins from the top down. Poor corporate management can lead to poor oversight and enforcement at the local level where the work happens. This can also lead to the hiring of unsafe and unprofessional drivers, leading to tragic consequences.”
If the corporation had investigated this crash, it would have learned it had enabled a pattern of dangerous behavior. And not for the first time: In 2016, the company was fined after a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration audit determined that its drivers had engaged in dangerous driving, including the use of hand-held devices.
Under oath, the company’s risk management director was not aware of that violation, whether the driver had been punished, or if any other remedial steps were taken to educate drivers on the danger of using a phone. Four years later, one of its drivers felt comfortable scrolling Facebook and Instagram even though he knew it broke the law and his employer’s policies. According to his and other testimony from company employees, it was not clear how – or if – these crucial safety measures were enforced.
A major accident under these conditions was “merely a matter of time,” Johnson//Becker attorneys wrote in one motion, thanks to the “horrendous, but equally conscious choices” made by the driver and his employer.
The company chose not to see the case go before a jury, instead agreeing to resolve the case two weeks before a scheduled jury trial.
“This was a complicated puzzle, and there were missing pieces,” says attorney Jake Jagdfeld. “We had to be dogged to find those missing pieces, and commit the time and money to get the case resolved for this deserving, tragically injured child and his family.”
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