Car and truck accident at intersectiion.

Corporate greed, regulatory failures responsible for hundreds of deadly big rig accidents each year, BKM is fighting to make the roads safer by holding truckers accountable

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

Since MahoningMatters offered me the opportunity to grace their website with this column each week, I’ve addressed everything from COVID to corruption, distracted driving to democracy and dozens of topics in between. But if pressed to pick the most important subject I write about, is highlighting the role personal injury attorneys and the civil justice play in saving lives, preventing injuries, and making our nation and our world safer places to live, work, travel, and play would be numero uno on my list.  

Over the years I’ve shined a spotlight on exploding Pintos, Boeing’s fatally flawed Max 8, lethal medical devices and drugs, cigarettes, and myriad other products and practices that sowed carnage, death, and destruction across the land. As my regular readers know, there is a common thread that runs through these largely avoidable tragedies. They were all the result of corporate greed, cost-benefit analyses that placed corporate profits above the value of human life, regulatory failures, secrecy and lies, suppression and persecution of whistleblowers, as well as influence peddling and lobbying by business interests and trade groups.  

And there is one additional point of commonality: the human toll associated with each of these deplorable episodes: the number of people hurt and killed would have been exponentially higher if lawyers like me, my partners, and the other members of the trial bar had not taken on the difficult and expensive task of suing the largest corporations in the world and winning large settlements for victims and families that forced businesses to make products safer or remove them from the market altogether.

I’m revisiting the topic today because America’s Dangerous Trucks, a recent episode of PBS’ outstanding Frontline documentary series clearly shows that corporate greed and the other factors that have put Americans needlessly at risk for decades are at play in the trucking industry. The film opens at the side of the road near the spot where 16-year-old Riley Hein burned to death when his car slid under and was pinned beneath the back wheels of a 40” trailer.

After losing Riley, his father Hunter learned what we do in the course of the documentary:  Riley and the hundreds like him who perish in what are known as “underride” crashes each year did not have to die. Those killed include Marianne Karth’s daughters AnnaLeah and Mary who lost their lives when the car in which they were riding was pushed under one truck after being hit by another. In the wake of the tragedies the families found that the trucking industry had been battling against underride crash safety measures proposed by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) since 1981.

They also discovered that NHTSA, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which is responsible for aviation safety, is a captive agency controlled and dominated by the very industries it is charged with regulating and that NHTSA uses an economic formula to determine whether to impose new safety standards. If the cost equals more than $12.5 million for each life saved, it won’t be adopted. That’s the same type of cost-benefit analysis Lee Iacocca and Ford made when they decided to sell exploding Pintos.

I hope you share my disgust with the fact that the price of a human life was calculated by the government agency that is supposed to keep our highways safe rather than a profit-driven corporation. 

Which is not to say that the trucking industry and its trade group, the American Trucking Association (ATA) don’t have blood on their hands. Not only did they stop NHTSA from strengthening rear and side collision guards that would reduce the severity of underride crashes—a step that would add less than $250 to the cost of a trailer, they have kept truck safety legislation bottled up in Congress, and launched a successful campaign to convince state legislatures across the county to enact laws that will make it more difficult to hold truckers accountable for the deaths and injuries that occur when big rigs collide with passenger vehicles and motorcycles. Yes, it’s the big rig version of tort reform.

At the end of the film, we learn that the Hein’s sued the company that owned the truck that caused Riley’s death. In 2019 a jury awarded them $19 million—a figure that caught the attention of trailer makers and truckers, many of whom, in yet another demonstration of the power of the civil justice system, began installing improved rear and side underride guards.

Despite that important victory, Hunter Hein remains concerned. “You know, Riley was killed in 2015. We’re seven and a half years into this fight. It’s hard to just sit and watch and wait and hope that NHTSA will do the right thing. It’s really frustrating.”

“It’s very hard to get this agency to actually adhere to their mission to save lives. I mean, I’m an optimistic person, but I’m cautiously optimistic. I still think that the industry has a lot of power and a lot of undue influence with NHTSA. And it is incumbent, I think, upon all of us advocates and people that are very concerned about how many people are dying from side underride crashes to keep the pressure on NHTSA.”

I agree, and we should all demand that the agency free itself from the influence of the auto and trucking industries and begin to do its job.

Don’t let the clock run out: if you’ve been injured allowing the statute of limitations to expire could stop you from receiving the justice and just compensation you deserve

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

Statutes of limitations (SOL), laws that establish the maximum amount of time that parties involved in civil or criminal matter have to initiate a legal action, have been with us since the days of the Greek Republic and the Roman empire, which means they have been vexing and frustrating attorneys and citizens for thousands of years. And believe me, there are very few things as frustrating as having to tell someone who has been injured or wronged in some way that I can’t help them because the SOL that applies to their situation has run out.

In the vast majority of cases, it is not the potential client’s fault—aside from those of us who practice law most people have no idea that SOLs even exist or what the time limits are. To address that dilemma and reduce the chance that one of my loyal readers will be denied justice because the jurisprudential clock has run out, this week’s column will serve as a primer on this ancient, complicated, and confusing area of the law.

One caveat—how’s that for throwing a little Latin lawyerly lingo into mix—because SOLs are complicated and critical to the pursuit and disposition of cases, the information I’m providing should not be construed as legal advice. If you have been injured or harmed in some way and believe you have a cause of action, please, please, please consult the attorney of your choice immediately. Waiting too long or failing to do so could result in the courthouse door being needlessly slammed in your face—you should not allow that to happen.

Now, onto the topic of the day. Let’s begin with a look at the SOL that applies to personal injury cases like vehicle accidents, dog bites, product liability, premises liability which in common parlance is referred to as “slip and fall” and harm caused by other types of negligence. Under Ohio law the injured party has two years from the date the incident occurred to file suit. In addition, if a loved one is killed as a result of another party’s negligence families have two years from the date of death to file a wrongful death claim.  

Here’s a tip: don’t wait 23 months and 29 days to seek legal advice. It’s far better to explore whether you have a valid claim than to let the clock run out.

You probably noticed that medical malpractice was not listed above. That’s because med mal claims must be filed within one year of the date the injury was or should have been discovered or when the doctor/patient relationship ended, whichever occurs later. This more flexible time frame exists because it may not be immediately apparent that an injury has occurred.

In the interest of fairness, I feel compelled to note that the statute of limitations for legal malpractice mirrors the med mal SOL. Clients have one year from the date they discover or should have discovered that malpractice occurred or when the attorney-client relationship ends, whichever is later.

There is, however, a complicating factor when it comes to malpractice: something known as a statute of repose which sets a virtually non-flexible time limit for bringing actions against practitioners in Ohio. That means claims against attorneys, doctors, dentists, optometrists, and chiropractors must be brought no later than four years after the alleged malpractice took place.

There are exceptions—of course there are…Anyway, if a client exercising reasonable care and diligence, could not have discovered the legal malpractice within three years after the occurrence of the act or omission, but discovers it before the expiration of the four-year period they have a year after the discovery to bring an action.

A similar exemption exists for med mal and there’s a bonus exception: the statute of repose does not apply to situations in which a foreign object is left in a patient’s body during a procedure. If a scalpel turns up in an x-ray ten years after you had surgery, you’re free to file suit.

Here’s the bottom line: SOLs and statutes of repose were created to protect defendants, particularly those who are rich and powerful. Are they fair to injury victims and other plaintiffs? Probably not, but they won’t be disappearing in our lifetime, if ever, so it’s up to every citizen to avail themselves of the civil justice system when the need arises.