The existence of your operation doesn’t just depend on profitability
So, your insurance company is pressing you about the details and contacts of your safety program. Do you roll your eyes and think, “Safety Program!!!”, “How can I make this go away so I can just drive and earn a living”, or do you have a meaningful plan in place? A comprehensive safety program is a must for mitigating losses and goes a long way towards portraying you as a responsible carrier that over time reduces the operational risk and protects employees.
From the ever-increasing cost of equipment to sophisticated insurance fraud rings and nuclear jury awards, insurance companies are finding it harder than ever to reduce the financial volatility of a claim. Because of this, it is imperative that you as a motor carrier have controls in place for closely managing the safety of your operation.
Insurance companies are in the business of transferring risk from you to them. How much risk they take is the variable, but it is not a guessing game. Every insurance company has a set of standards that create their preferred risk. Any deviation from that criteria makes you a less common risk and often a less desirable risk which could mean higher premiums, declination or cancellation/non-renewal of your policy(ies). Each at-fault claim that a motor carrier incurs raises the percentage of money paid in premiums compared to money the insurance company pays to settle those claims. Once the insurance company pays out an amount on the carrier’s behalf that exceeds their level of tolerance for that risk, they become less desirable and will surely incur repercussions.
An alarming trend over the past number of years has been the way law firms have used the advertising of large awards to solicit new clients. Especially how those firms portray the trucking industry as reckless and irresponsible. The insurance industry is all too familiar with the trend and is continuously looking for ways to slow the onslaught. The result of those awards materialise as raised premiums, cancelled/non-renewed policies, risk reduction and tighter risk selection by ensuring the client is as risk-free as possible and has a safety program in place.
A recent study by the Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) attempts to make sense of out-of-control jury awards against the trucking industry. Interviewees from the ATRI study generally concurred that the more safety activities motor carriers engaged in to prevent crashes the lower the likelihood that a nuclear verdict would result. It was also commonly noted that motor carriers typically do not allocate enough resources toward safety and crash prevention.
There are many factors that play a role in determining fault and awarding large payouts – many of which are out of the control of trucking companies. Nevertheless, motor carriers need to focus on those areas that they can control such as: meeting/exceeding FMCSRs, equipment maintenance, inspections, citations/violations, cargo securement, driver training, and properly maintaining log books.
Plaintiff attorneys will frame FMCSRs as minimum standards and juries are less forgiving when plaintiffs can document that additional reasonable steps to prevent a crash could have been taken, regardless of compliance with FMCSRs. The ability of defense attorneys to have documented safety activities that exceed FMCSRs carries great weight with juries. This also makes you a better risk in the eyes of an insurance company. According to the ATRI, a key strategy among plaintiff attorneys is to emotionally charge a jury against a motor carrier by painting them as careless and unsafe. However, a motor carrier that has not only met FMCSRs but exceeded them, reduces the ability of the plaintiff attorney to stigmatize them. This is where a safety program can validate responsible safety efforts.
A reasonable and responsible safety program should have appropriate, documented disciplinary actions. Per the ATRI study, in situations where there was any history of alcohol or drug use by the truck driver, it became much easier to convince a jury that the truck driver was at fault for the crash – even when the crash causal factors were unclear or tenuous. So, a responsible action might be to have documentation
that meets or exceeds what is expected before hiring or returning a driver to active duty following a positive test – regardless of time between the test and return to duty.
To begin drafting a safety program, begin by answering some questions you might be asked following a crash such as:
What steps have you taken to ensure your drivers are roadworthy?
What operational, safety or training factors could have prevented the crash from happening?
What actions have you taken following previous crashes?
Do you have training sessions/driver meetings?
Do you have a vehicle maintenance schedule?
Are your pre- and post-trip inspection reports handled properly?
Do you audit logbooks?
Are your inspections clean or are there patterns in violations?
Plaintiff attorneys are not paid by the hour but by the size of the award. Following a crash, you should expect that every aspect of your operation from maintenance to meal breaks will be scrutinized for the sole purpose of applying fault. Be proactive and have a comprehensive safety program in place. If you need help, contact your insurance agent or a loss prevention specialist.