Photo of Marissa Morte

Marissa Morte is an associate in MG+M’s Boston office where she is a member of the Complex Litigation Practice Group. Marissa focuses her practice on a variety of complex civil litigation matters including business litigation, commercial law, products liability, and toxic tort liability.

Last year, the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) published a comprehensive analysis on the notable increase in verdicts over $1 million in the trucking industry. ATRI’s 2020 study, Understanding the Impact of Nuclear Verdicts on the Trucking Industry, received significant attention, ultimately prompting ATRI to investigate verdicts and settlements in the trucking industry under $1 million.[1] As such, last month, the ATRI published The Impact of Small Verdicts and Settlements on the Trucking Industry.[2] Unlike the sensational multi-million dollar nuclear verdicts, these “smaller” payouts seemingly have little effect on motor carriers and insurance agencies. However, there is a general consensus in the trucking industry that small settlements and verdicts are increasing in both frequency and severity.

ATRI’s research focused on: (1) identifying the legal conditions that cultivate the small litigation cases in the trucking industry; (2) assessing the relationship between small payouts and increasing insurance rates; (3) quantifying the impact of crash characteristics and litigation factors on payment size; and (4) quantifying the impact of crash characteristics and litigation factors on settlement timing.[3] In advancing these four objectives, ATRI analyzed litigation data from 641 cases, over the course of 14 years.[4] Notably, the study only considered data from cases involving some form of litigation; the data did not include pre-suit settlements.[5]

The Impact of Small Verdicts and Settlements on the Trucking Industry provides key insight into the current climate of the trucking industry while also anticipating future trends in trucking litigation. The report contains several noteworthy conclusions. For instance, the study showed that settlements in trucking cases were approximately 37.7% larger than verdicts.[6] The type of injury also affected whether a case settled or resulted in a verdict. Cases involving a fatality were 393% more likely to settle and cases with a severe injury were 217% more likely to settle than reach a jury.[7]

Furthermore, ATRI’s investigation into how alleged driver infractions affected smaller payouts reinforces the importance of carrier safety practice.[8] Alleged driver infractions that resulted in the largest payouts did not uniformly relate to the accident giving rise to a plaintiff’s claim.[9] ATRI noted that “[p]oor driver history and other alleged carrier infractions can prove especially costly because they spark additional jury sympathy on the basis of corporate ethics and culture.”[10] The data also connected poor driver history with poor hiring practices, inadequate training, and vicarious liability.[11] This correlation reinforces the importance of motor carrier oversight through programs like driver onboarding and training programs to reduce payouts.[12]

ATRI also discussed how the venue of a particular case affected the payout value of smaller claims.[13] Data from states including California, New Jersey, and Michigan (all deemed “judicial hellholes”) revealed average payments significantly above the national average.[14] For example, California had an estimated average payment amount of $588,231, or 56.1% above the national average.[15] Interestingly, ATRI identified one state, Tennessee, with predicted lower than average payments.[16] In making this distinction, ATRI noted that
Continue Reading Verdicts and Settlements in the Trucking Industry: Current Climate and Foreseeable Trends

For all Americans, the beginning of June brings with it the lifting of stay-at-home orders and the reopening of the economies of every state. Yet, many experts warn that it could be months or even years before everyday life returns to normal. While the “new” American way of life is uncertain at best, recent trends in litigation provide some insight into the types of claims that are likely to arise out of the COVID-19 pandemic. One trend highlights an emergence in litigation involving consumer protection statutes and COVID-19.

Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) statues exist in all fifty states and the District of Columbia to protect consumers from unfair, deceptive, predatory and unscrupulous business practices.[1]  However, there exists little uniformity among UDAP statues. Some states such as Massachusetts provide for liberal coverage, extensive damages, and attorneys’ fees. Other states, such as Rhode Island, exempt most lenders and creditors from UDAP coverage.[2] By way of example, Massachusetts’ UDAP statute, known as “Chapter 93A” broadly prohibits “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.”[3] Chapter 93A Section 9 provides for a private right of action for a claimant who is a consumer and Chapter 93A Section 11 provides for a private cause of action for an entity engaged in trade or commerce.[4] The Massachusetts UDAP statute provides for actual damages, multiple damages for knowing or willful violations, and attorneys’ fees to a prevailing claimant.[5]

In comparison, California has two UDAP statutes. First, California’s Unfair Competition Law, prohibits any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business practice, as well as depictive or misleading advertising.[6] Though the Unfair Competition Law does not exempt particular businesses, consumers may not seek damages or multiple damages and are limited to restitution.[7] Private causes of action under California’s Unfair Competition Law are also limited to consumers who have “lost money or property.”[8] California’s other UDAP statute is the Consumers Legal Remedies Act, California Code sections 1750-1784.[9] The Consumer Legal Remedies Act applies to consumer transactions involving the “sale or lease of goods or services.”[10]

In addition to general provisions that prohibit unfair or deceptive acts, many UDAP statues give the attorney general or a state agency authority to adopt rules and regulations to enforce the act. For example, Massachusetts’ Chapter 93A provides that “[t]he attorney general may make rules and regulations interpreting the provisions of subsection 2(a) of this chapter.”[11] As such, on March 20, 2020, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced an emergency regulation banning price gouging of essential products and services in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.[12] Attorney General Healey’s amendment sought to supplement Massachusetts’s Chapter 93A statute, which previously regulated only the sale of gasoline and petroleum.[13] The amendment now prohibits price gouging of all essential goods necessary to prevent the spread of the pandemic (e.g., masks, soap and hand sanitizer). By contrast, California’s Unfair Competition Law does not provide a
Continue Reading Consumer Protection in the Age of COVID-19

On June 29, 2018, a New Jersey state appeals court ruled that a superior court improperly allowed a jury to consider evidence, not represented at trial, in allocating damages among nine defendants in an asbestos case. The state appeals court ordered a new trial in Rowe v. Bell & Gossett Company to address the issue of re-apportioning the $1,500,000.00 jury verdict.

Throughout Ronald Rowe’s thirty-plus year career working as an automobile mechanic, and repairing and servicing boilers, Rowe claims he was exposed to asbestos from a variety of sources. On April 27, 2015, a jury found that Rowe’s exposure to hardened cement manufactured by Universal Engineering Co., Inc. (Universal), was a substantial factor causing Rowe’s mesothelioma. The jury also found Rowe’s exposure to asbestos from the products of the eight defendants that previously settled the case to be a substantial factor causing his mesothelioma. The jury allocated twenty percent of the damages to Universal and apportioned the remaining eighty percent among the eight defendants that had previously resolved the case.

Donna Rowe appealed the April 27, 2015 jury verdict on behalf of her husband who died of mesothelioma on April 8, 2015. In one of several points raised on appeal, Donna Rowe argued that Universal relied on improperly admitted evidence in proving its apportionment claim. At trial, the court allowed Universal to admit settled defendants’ answers to interrogatories. The trial court reasoned that because Universal asserted cross-claims against the settled defendants, the answers to interrogatories were admissible, even if those interrogatory answers were served in an unrelated matter, outside New Jersey. The judge also allowed Universal to read sections of depositions of corporate representatives of the settled defendants, to help substantiate Universal’s apportionment claim. The trial judge relied on Universal’s representation that the representatives of the eight settling defendants were outside the jurisdiction of the court and unavailable for trial.

Continue Reading New Jersey Appeals Court Rules on Admissibility of Evidence in Proving Apportionment Claim