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Defendant cleared in deadly crash near rest stop

A federal jury sided with a trucking company following a fatal crash near the on-ramp of an awkwardly placed rest stop on Interstate 44.

The suit stemmed from the death of 22-year-old Brandan Sutherland, who was a passenger in a 2009 Ford Focus traveling eastbound through Missouri on the evening Jan. 31, 2016. The car struck the back of a slow-moving tractor-trailer. Sutherland and the driver, William Weekley, 19, died after suffering catastrophic injuries.

Sutherland’s parents, Tabitha Holt and Clyde Sutherland, claimed that Qualified Trucking Service Inc. was liable for its driver’s allegedly negligent operation of the truck. The driver had gone to a rest stop near St. Clair, which sits in the I-44 median. Getting back onto the highway required him to merge from the left.

Steven Hughes of Hughes Lawyers, an attorney for Qualified Trucking, said the ramp runs uphill, making it especially difficult for trucks to get up to speed before entering the highway’s fast lane. He also said the driver had to come to a complete stop on the ramp due to oncoming traffic.

“That’s a bad scenario down there, where you are merging with a full load into the fast lane, whether you’re a car or a truck,” Hughes said. “I think it’s something the highway department should have been aware of a long time ago.”

He said the driver testified that his flashers were activated and that he was fully within the right lane when the accident occurred.

Hughes said the plaintiffs made a time-limited demand for the company’s $1 million policy limit, then sought $3.75 million after the demand expired, which, had the defense lost at trial, could have exposed its insurer to a claim of having acted in bad faith by refusing to settle. 

However, J.J. Burns of Dollar, Burns, Becker & Hershewe, an attorney for Sutherland’s mother, said he thought the bad-faith claim would have been difficult to achieve, as California-based Qualified Trucking was administratively dissolved following the accident. He said he asked the defense for approximately $700,000 to $800,000, but no agreement was reached.

The plaintiffs asked for $5 million to $10 million at the conclusion of the four-day trial. Burns said his client did not appeal the verdict. Sutherland’s father, who represented himself at trial, filed an appeal in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which remains pending.

Burns said Qualified Trucking had numerous safety issues and that the driver, who had just completed trucking school and primarily spoke Mandarin, was poorly trained. However, he said, the jury apparently didn’t accept the plaintiff’s argument that the truck should have stayed on the shoulder until it reached the minimum highway speed. 

“I think [the defense] did a fantastic job of appealing to common sense in response to our arguments about the particular duties of a tractor-trailer driver under this set of circumstances,” Burns said. “Obviously, it echoed with the fact-finders.”

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Defense verdict

Motor vehicle collision

Venue: U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Missouri

Case Number/Date: 4:19-cv-00102/Oct. 15, 2021

Judge: Matthew Schelp

Plaintiffs’ Experts: Phil Smith, Analysis Inc., Grand Junction, Colorado (accident reconstruction); James Mulkey, Missouri State Highway Patrol, Jefferson City (crash investigator)

First pretrial demand: $1,000,000

First pretrial offer: $100,000

Last pretrial demand: $3,750,000

Last pretrial offer: $225,000

Insurer: National Indemnity

Caption: Tabitha Holt and Clyde Sutherland v. Qualified Trucking Service Inc.

Plaintiffs’ Attorney: J.J. Burns and Joshua Becker, Dollar, Burns, Becker & Hershewe, Kansas City (for Holt)

Defendant’s Attorneys: Steven Hughes and Joseph Hoffman, Hughes Lawyers, St. Louis

 

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