A tragic truck accident in Texas has brought new attention to the problem of uninsured and underinsured commercial truck drivers, and to the unfair and unjust barriers enacted by some courts to deny accident victims fair compensation for their injuries.
In 2006, Michelle Gaines suffered a traumatic brain injury, a broken pelvis, and a punctured lung when an 18-wheeler oil rig ran a red light and hit her car. The brain injury was so severe that Gaines - who was the prom queen at her high school and was headed off to college - now has the mental faculties of a 12 year old, with short-term memory loss and vision disabilities.
Gaines' lawyers discovered that the truck driver was on his way to meet a businessman who was paying the driver and the owner of the oil rig to let him blueprint the design of the oil rig so that he could manufacture a copycat version. After the accident the businessman made a number of payments to the owner of the oil rig, who in turn burned his business records and hauled off the oil rig andcut it up for scrap before Gaines' lawyers could inspect it. It looked shocking and illegal, and reports say a jury found that it happened - but it looks like Gaines won’t be able to recover any compensation for the accident or the destruction of evidence.
It turned out that neither the driver nor the owner of the oil rig had any liability insurance, but the businessman is reported to be quite wealthy, and so Gaines' lawyers brought him into the lawsuit as well, because he was plainly the employer of the truck driver and the oil rig owner. A jury agreed, awarding Ms. Gaines $8 million in compensatory damages, but the intermediate state appellate court in Texas dismissed the case against the businessman entirely. Now the issue is in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court, which unfortunately usually rules against accident victims.
The families of people seriously injured or killed in trucking accidents are often shocked to learn about the number of legal loopholes available that defendants can use to avoid being held accountable for their own conduct. Bankruptcy, for example, doesn’t typically require the debtor sell their home or any of their cars, but will usually discharge any debts relating to personal injury lawsuits. When that happens, like what happened with Michelle Gaines, then the families and taxpayers will be on the hook for all the care and treatment that the plaintiff requires, treatment which, in cases involving brain injury or spinal cord injury, can cost millions of dollars over the years.
With a dearth of qualified truck drivers available, and thus an increase in the use of unqualified truck drivers, the problem of uninsured and underinsured drivers in serious and fatal accidents are only going to get worse. We are rooting for Michelle in front of the Texas Supreme Court, although we unfortunately are not optimistic about their chances. We can only hope that, with more attention brought to this case, other state legislatures and courts will be less inclined to give a free pass to people like the businessman who hired the trucker that injured Michelle, and thereby ensure that everyone, including the wealthy, including the people who can afford to hire lawyers to explore every loophole, will be held accountable for the destruction they cause.