On July 11, 2017, while traveling Westbound I-70, just west of Kansas City, Kansas, five motor vehicle occupants, traveling in three separate vehicles, died when the driver of a 2015 Freightliner Cascadia, owned by a motor carrier, allegedly failed to timely apply his brakes so as to avoid a collision with the decelerating traffic.
Before the heirs of the decedents filed litigation, the motor carrier, which only maintained $1 million in liability coverage, filed for bankruptcy. Without an obvious deep pocket available, the heirs of the five decedents needed to pursue a novel theory if they hoped to receive meaningful compensation.
Rather than bringing suit against the driver of the Freightliner and his motor carrier employer, the heirs of the decedents undertook the novel charge of holding the manufacturer of the Freightliner – Daimler Trucks of North America (DTNA) and the company German parent, Daimler AG – liable. Specifically, the plaintiffs' complaints maintained that DTNA and Daimler designed, manufactured, and failed to equip the Freightliner with forward collision warning system (FCW) or automatic emergency braking system (AEB) technologies.
FCW and AEB technologies have been on the market for over twenty years. These technologies are standard, and legally required since 2015, on new Daimler trucks sold throughout Europe. Although Daimler offers consumers the option to purchase these technologies for truck sold in the United States, federal law does not require trucks to be equipped with such technologies. Consequently, the plaintiffs allege Daimler knowingly sold a dangerous product when it failed to equip its trucks with such collision-reducing technology.
Ultimately, the United States District Court for the District of Kansas sustained Daimler AG's Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction. See Butler v. Daimler Trucks N. Am., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 148739 (D. Kan. Aug. 18, 2020). Yet, the plaintiffs' lawsuit remains pending against DTNA.
The ingenuity (and ridiculousness) of the plaintiffs' lawsuit is a result of insufficient insurance coverage and a quest for a defendant with deep-pockets.
While the viability of this legal theory has not yet been determined, similar lawsuits have begun to percolate throughout the United States. The floodgates have not broken, but should this lawsuit prove successful, motor carriers should expect plaintiffs to broaden their claims as plaintiffs will seek to hold motor carriers liable for failing to purchase collision-reducing technologies or equipping their trucks with such technologies.
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