Following a three-week trial, a Philadelphia jury awarded plaintiff Isaac Espinoza a $15.57 million award after he was struck by a commercial truck. Espinoza had stopped on the side of I-81 to help a friend whose vehicle became disabled. Ricky Hatfield was an independent truck operator who had been working for J.B. Hunt Transport Inc. After Hatfiled struck Espinoza with the truck, he attempted to flee the scene on foot but was later arrested.
Testing showed Hatfield’s blood-alcohol level (BAC) measured 0.171%, well beyond the legal limit. The civil suit alleged the company had failed to conduct a background check on Hatfield, who had a dangerous driving record with a prior DUI, reckless driving charge, and an employment termination from refusing to submit to drug and alcohol testing. Hatfield was convicted of a DUI in the criminal case associated with this incident and sentenced to prison.
Mr. Espinoza was catastrophically injured in the accident. He had a damaged diaphragm, paralysis in one arm, and other impairments requiring help to complete basic day-to-day activities. He was also experiencing severe psychological problems evidenced by two suicide attempts.
J.B. Hunt Transport is a publicly-held transportation logistics organization established in 1961. Hatfield’s responsibility in the matter was obvious; however, J.B. Hunt Transport challenged their alleged liability. They explained Hatfield was an independent contractor based on an “Outsource Carriage Agreement”, not a company employee. At the time the truck accident occurred, Hatfield was not on the way to pick up or currently hauling anything for J.B. Hunt and was off-duty that day. Counsel for J.B. Hunt stated that if they had been aware of Hatfield’s history of recklessness they would not have allowed him to transport freight for their company.
The jury determined Hatfield had been 60% responsible and J.B Hunt was 40% liable in the accident. The award for damages was $12.2 million for economic damages and $3.3 million for losses of consortium for his wife. A plaintiff attorney stated they were satisfied with the outcome which allows for the necessary medical care that Espinoza will now require. Plaintiffs hope the verdict reminds companies about the importance of conducting background checks for commercial drivers.
Pennsylvania’s Updated DUI Provisions
The state now uses a tiered classification system which dictates the penalties for DUI offenders. They have three distinct levels based on the offender’s BAC as follows:
- General: .08 to 0.99% BAC level
- High: 0.10 to 0.159% BAC level
- Extreme: 0.16% and higher
Those under the age of 21, commercial vehicle operators, and public or school bus drivers may have their penalties adjusted to a higher tier regardless of their impairment level when injuries or property damage occurs from their actions. To be eligible for occupational driving privileges, drivers must have a disabling ignition interlock device installed in their vehicle and are no longer able to serve an additional one-year license suspension instead of installing these devices.
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