Negligently Maintained Tractor-Trailer Leads to $281 Million Dollar Wrongful Death and Punitive Damages Verdict

On December 5, 2013, a South Texas jury awarded $181 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to the family of a deceased driver who was killed when in May 2012, the drive shaft of a tractor-trailer he was driving behind broke off and shot out from behind the truck through the windshield of the pickup truck in which Carlos Aguilar was riding.

The tractor-trailer was owned by Heckmann Water Resources, one of the largest companies dedicated to the removal, treatment and disposal of oil field development by-products.

Mr. Aguilar’s family’s wrongful death lawsuit alleged that Heckmann was negligent because the “semi” was not properly maintained, which led to the drive-shaft failure. The truck’s driver was also joined in the suit but was found not to have been at fault.

Heckmann, which in May 2013, was re-named Nuverra Environmental Solutions Inc., a publicly traded company, has released a statement through its CEO, Mark Johnsrud, expressing great sympathy for Aguilar and his family but emphasizing its disappointment with the verdict, which they believe “exceeds well-established judicial norms and precedent by a staggering margin.”

The company believes it has meritorious post-trial motions for reconsideration, reduction of the verdict and grounds for appeal. Aguilar’s family’s efforts to collect the verdict will be complicated by the fact that Heckmann’s parent company may be insulated from liability, Heckmann’s available insurance limits were just $16 million, and no further reserve had been established by the company for the loss.

While it will be interesting to track whether this colossal verdict is upheld, the lesson for businesses seeking to avoid catastrophic personal injury claims is to properly maintain, on an effective and well-documented maintenance schedule, company vehicles and other potentially injury causing products.

The case, Estate of Aguilar v. Heckmann Water Resources et al., No. 12-06011697-DCVCLM, in the 293rd Judicial District Court of Dimmit County, Texas.