On Nov. 21, 2006, Pamela Becker, 42, and her son, Daniel Becker, 19, were traveling southbound on I-85, near the South Carolina/Georgia state line. A semi pulling double trailers operated by Oliver Mitchell was traveling north on I-85 when he lost control of the vehicle. The unusually long combination vehicle traveled across the median, through the cable barrier, and struck the Becker vehicle, killing Daniel instantly and grievously injuring Pamela, who also later died.
Although Pamela was taken by Life Flight to a nearby hospital and treated for a closed head injury, multiple facial fractures, multiple open upper extremity fractures and other injuries, she died two days later on Thanksgiving Day as a result of the injuries she received in this horrific crash.
With the help of Dollar, Burns & Becker, surviving spouse and father Jeff Becker brought an action against the driver and the motor carrier for the wrongful deaths, including claims for negligence, negligent entrustment and negligent hiring, supervision and retention.
Both defendants raised the affirmative defense of “sudden medical incapacity,” claiming the driver failed to control the commercial motor vehicle because he experienced the “sudden incapacity” of cough syncope, which caused him to “black out” and “be unable to control the tractor-trailer.”
The accident investigation team hired by DB&B later determined that at the time of the collision it had been raining, and the wiper positions in the vehicles were on. In addition to poor road conditions and darkness, it was discovered that the driver was operating the truck on cruise control, received two calls on his cellphone moments before the crash and was also on the CB radio.
The driver told law enforcement personnel on the scene that he coughed, started choking, got lightheaded and passed out, but gave several differing descriptions of the cough event to health care providers and other witnesses. Plaintiff argued that the driver was distracted, was driving too fast for conditions and lost control of the vehicle.
Plaintiff withstood a Motion for Summary Judgment on the negligent entrustment and negligent hiring, retention and supervision causes of action. The defense claimed such causes of action were not allowable based on the defense’s admission of the driver’s employment status and the fact no alcohol was involved in any alleged negligent entrustment.
Plaintiff cited evidence that the motor carrier was aware that Mitchell was having “personal problems that he can’t handle and/or medical problems” that affected his driving duties. He had been having multiple logging problems that were not usual for him, and had caused a prior preventable crash just 11 days before the current crash. Plaintiff alleged the prior crash was also at a time when the driver was on the phone. Plaintiff claimed these facts established the carrier not only should have known, but did, in fact, know that Mr. Mitchell was suffering from personal problems and/or medical problems that affected his driving duties and that allowing Mr. Mitchell to use the tractor-trailer created an unreasonable risk of harm to others.
The case settled at mediation for $7 million. Additional terms of the recovery include the defendant motor carrier’s agreement to hire an independent safety consultant to make recommendations on implementing a Driver Assessment Program for existing drivers, policies and procedures that ensure safety is part of every driver’s job, and implementing a company management statement on safety
WHAT JEFF BECKER HAS TO SAY ABOUT DOLLAR, BURNS & BECKER
”I would hate to think of another family having to go through what my family has, but I’ve learned that crashes like the one that took Pam and Daniel happen on a regular basis. I would recommend using an attorney with years of trucking litigation experience, which we found in Jeff Burns of Dollar, Burns & Becker.
“From the time I first met with Jeff, I felt he had a deep, personal concern for how Justin and I were doing, and he always treated us with great care. He conducted a thorough investigation of how the crash happened, and was fully prepared to try the case when we received the offer to settle.
“Safety on our nation’s highways is important to Jeff Burns and, after he determines the cause of a crash, he works to change the safety practices of the trucking company involved. Jeff Burns has forced safety management changes to many of the trucking companies and that has translated, in my opinion, to making it safer for everyone to drive on our highways.”