Trucking Co. Can't Undo $20M Verdict In Crash Death Suit

A Missouri court of appeals panel affirmed the trial judge’s decision to exclude a defense medical expert’s testimony and other trial rulings in this fatal trucking accident case. A trucking company had sought to overturn a $20M award against it in favor of the parents of a young man who died when a company truck collided with a car his mother was driving.

Truck accident aftermath

ByCarolyn Casey, J.D.


Published on May 1, 2024

Truck accident aftermath

What Happened?

The deceased, Robert Schultz, was on his way to his 6 am shift at McDonalds along with his co-worker and mother, Carrie Schultz. It was a rainy morning on Interstate 70. Ms. Schultz was driving her car on a curve marked for 60 miles per hour (mph) when another car cut in front of her, causing her vehicle to fishtail and stop after hitting the meridian.

Lennis H. Beck, a driver employed by Great Plains Trucking, hurled his 18-wheeler tractor-trailer around that same curve at 70 mph when he saw the Schultz car’s flashing headlights. He slammed on his brakes but it was too late — the truck collided with the car at 34 mph, killing the Schultz’s 19-year-old son Robert.

Beck, a frequent driver of this route from Kansas City, had set his cruise control to 70 mph despite the wet conditions. As Mr. Beck entered the blind curve rather than slow down, his truck’s cruise control actually accelerated into the curve. The Schultz’s car didn’t stand a chance as it sat in the roadway.

Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Following the death of their son, Robert Schultz Sr. And Carrie Schultz brought a wrongful death lawsuit against Great Plains Trucking and the driver in the St. Charles County Circuit Court in Missouri.

Edward D. Robertson Jr. and Edward D. Robertson III of Bartimus Frickleton Robertson Rader represented the plaintiffs, who were divorced. In addition, Ms. Schultz was represented by Antoinette T. Schlapprizzi, Craig A. Schlapprizzi, and Donald L. Schlapprizzi of Schlapprizzi Attorneys at Law. Schultz Sr. also had Christopher J. Finney and Alexander L. Ledbetter of Finney Injury Law as his counsel.

At the trial, Carrie Schultz admitted to being a frequent user of marijuana and that she smoked some the morning of the accident. A defense medical expert testified that the THC impaired Ms. Schultz and that she had divided attention and a slowed reaction time at the time of the accident. This doctor also opined that this state resulted in Schultz losing control of her car and causing the accident.

However, the medical expert could not say with a reasonable degree of certainty that the marijuana resin Carrie smoked that morning contained THC concentration or that the THC found in her blood was from the resin. The doctor also testified that THC affects each person differently.

The lower court excluded the expert witness’s testimony due to her lack of certainty, adding it might have “the likely prejudicial effect of allowing the jury to hear her speculative opinions on those issues.”

The jury awarded the parents $10M in compensatory damages and another $10M for aggravating circumstances against Great Plains. Damages against the driver Beck added another $10M, for a total award of $45M.

Defendants’ Attorneys Donald J. Ohl and Abby D. Bandy, of KOG Law in Edwardsville, Illinois filed an appeal on behalf of Great Plains Trucking, challenging several of the trial court’s rulings.

Appeals Panel Said Exclusion of Defense’s Expert THC Testimony OK

In the review, the panel noted the inconsistency in the doctor’s testimony. On the one hand, the expert said Carrie was impaired on the morning of the accident. On the other hand, the doctor could not say what effect the THC level in Ms. Schultz had on her behavior at the time of the accident nor could the expert say what level of THC, if any, was in the resin she smoked.

The panel also focused on the doctor’s inability to specify any symptoms or behavior by Carrie Schultz that showed impairment, other than the loss of control of her vehicle. The judges found it telling that the doctor had admitted she could not say what made Carrie fishtail the car that morning.

The appeals panel ultimately found that the doctor’s opinions were speculative and not relevant — concluding that any probative value was outweighed by the prejudicial impact since Missouri law does not presume impairment from drug use. The panel upheld the lower court’s exclusion of the defense’s medical expert testimony concerning Ms. Schultz’s THC usage.

No Error in Jury Instruction on Negligence

Great Plains and Beck also wanted the appeals panel to overrule the lower court’s jury instruction that the jury could find negligence if Lennis Beck hadn’t kept a careful lookout. The defense asserted that there was no evidence that Beck hadn't done so.

Yet, the panel disagreed, noting that as a driver Beck had the "highest duty" of care. The panel pointed to the evidence that Beck didn’t slow down at the curve despite the flashing light and sign advising 60mph. He also knew this was a blind curve because he’d driven the road more than 50 times.

Great Plains Trucking Prioritized Profit over Safety

The defense’s challenge to the aggravating circumstances damages was doomed by the behavior of both the company and the driver.

The panel took the company to task over its admission of an unwritten policy that drivers should go four or five miles over the speed limit in all circumstances. The failure of Great Plains Trucking to investigate and acknowledge safety problems after the fatal accident struck the panel. The absence of any company corrective action such as more training for Beck or introducing remedial measures was also problematic for the defense.

The panel found that there was sufficient evidence of intentional wrongdoing — stating that, “[a] juror “could have also inferred from Great Plains’ policy that Great Plains placed its ability to make a profit by prioritizing speed and time above the well-being and safety of the public.”

Beck’s conduct also undercut the defense’s arguments to throw out the aggravating circumstances damages. Beck had admitted that he did not follow Missouri's commercial driver's license (CDL) manual. The industry manual requires truckers on wet roads to reduce their speed to one-third of the posted speed limit. Instead, Beck drove 70 mph on a posted speed limit of 65 mph that rainy morning.

Beck also failed to comply with the CDL manual mandates that drivers reduce their speed to align with the traffic flow — he used the fast lane to get in front of other cars.

Further, Beck failed to keep enough room to see 12-15 seconds ahead of his vehicle. The panel said a jury could be led to find that Beck disregarded the safety of others.

Panel Rules Plaintiffs Can Have Own Counsel

Lastly, the appeals panel found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the plaintiffs to have separate attorneys represent them. In its finding, the court pointed to the couple’s divorced status and the fact that Ms. Schultz drove the car during the accident.

About the author

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Carolyn Casey is a seasoned professional with extensive experience in legal tech, e-discovery, and legal content creation. As Principal of WritMarketing, she combines her decade of Big Law experience with two decades in software leadership to provide strategic consulting in product strategy, content, and messaging for legal tech clients. Previously, Carolyn served as Legal Content Writer for Expert Institute, Sr. Director of Industry Relations at AccessData, and Director of Product Marketing at Zapproved, focusing on industry trends in forensic investigations, compliance, privacy, and e-discovery. Her career also includes roles at Iron Mountain as Head of Legal Product Management and Sr. Product Marketing Manager, where she led product and marketing strategies for legal services, and at Fios Inc as Sr. Marketing Manager, specializing in eDiscovery solutions.

Her early legal expertise was honed at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, where she developed legal strategies for mergers, acquisitions, and international finance matters. Carolyn's education includes a J.D. from American University Washington College of Law, where she was a Senior Editor for the International Law Journal and participated in a pioneering China Summer Law Program. She also holds an AB in Political Science with a minor in art history from Stanford University. Her diverse skill set encompasses research, creative writing, copy editing, and a deep understanding of legal product marketing and international legal trends.

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