Werner $40 million judgment centers on entry-level driver training
October 16, 2019
A New Mexico jury awarded a family more than $40 million in a lawsuit involving a Werner Enterprises driver. The trucker had just graduated from Werner’s Roadmaster Drivers School, raising questions about driver training.
On Oct. 11, a jury for the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, N.M., awarded the family of Kathryn Armijo $40.5 million in a lawsuit against Werner, including $10 million in punitive damages.
The jury found Werner, one of its drivers and the driver’s instructor all negligent in a fatal crash. The driver was on his eighth day of driving since graduating from Werner’s Roadmaster Drivers School when the crash occurred.
Armijo v. Werner
At approximately 8 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2017, Kathryn Armijo was killed in a head-on collision, according to the complaint. Armijo was struck by a Werner truck driven by Jose Johnson. Johnson was a recent graduate of Roadmaster truck driving school and a student driver at Werner.
Johnson had crossed four lanes of traffic and a paved median when he struck Armijo. The crash occurred on Interstate 10 outside of Las Cruces, N.M.
It was later discovered that Johnson had just received his CDL through Werner’s Roadmaster Drivers School. Johnson had no experience driving a commercial vehicle before attending the school.
Johnson and his trainer, Gabriel Perez, had picked up a “just-in-time” load in Buckeye, Ariz., earlier that day.
Attorneys for the estate of Armijo filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Werner. The lawsuit claims that Werner was negligent in allowing Johnson to drive on his own so soon after receiving his CDL.
Not fit to drive
Johnson attended the four-week course at Roadmaster’s Orlando location. According to court documents, he received C’s in safety, road driving, defensive driving and angle backing.
After taking his CDL exam, Johnson was required to retake the “Basic” portion twice before he was issued a waiver. Despite struggles during the coursework and during the exam, Roadmaster graduated Johnson. He was given his CDL and hired by Werner. He began driving full time on Feb. 16, 2017, as a student driver.
Werner’s student driver program has three phases. Perez was required to observe Johnson for a minimum of 30 hours in the first five days. Johnson was required to observe Perez for 10 hours. Johnson was also prohibited from driving without an instructor present.
However, between Feb. 16 and Feb. 23 of 2017, Johnson drove approximately 64% of the time unsupervised, according to court documents. Within Johnson’s first four days, neither he nor Perez logged any observation time.
Court documents reveal that Perez had been disciplined two previous times as an instructor. At the time of Armijo’s death, Perez was on felony probation.
Armijo’s attorneys claim “just-in-time” loads were the reason behind Johnson and Perez breaking protocol.
“Johnson and Perez, to meet the stringent time deadlines contained in these loads and/or to keep the wheels turning enough to satisfy Werner, were forced to forego necessary observation time and training, depriving Johnson of the additional experience he needed to safely operate an 18-wheeler under the 49 CFR 391.11(b),” the lawsuit states. “Werner assigned these loads with knowledge that the time requirements for the loads would require Perez to be sleeping while Johnson was driving.”
According to the complaint, investigations into other student drivers shows that it is not uncommon for instructors to be sleeping while students are driving. The lawsuit also claims that drivers can become trainers as early as three months after receiving their CDL.
Not a ‘singular accident’?
David Harris, the attorney representing Armijo’s estate, told Land Line that Werner claimed that this case was merely a “singular accident” not indicative of a problem. Werner instead claims its driver training program is just fine.
“(Werner’s) training system is a paper-only system, but when you look at it in actual practice, they’re not fulfilling their duties of their telling their students, telling their trainers or telling the public what is actually going on,” Harris said.
The lawsuit claims that Werner knew about the shortcomings of its training schools. The complaint claimed that Jamie Maus, Werner’s vice president of safety and compliance, testified under oath during deposition in another fatal crash lawsuit involving one of their student drivers that Werner’s internal safety policy was different from federal guidelines.
“Upon information and belief, Werner knowingly, willfully, and recklessly continues to engage in this business practice as a mechanism of keeping cheap labor for its trucking force,” the lawsuit states. “Werner pays student drivers approximately $500 a week, which during a 60 to 70-hour workweek equals approximately minimum wage. To date, a Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit addressing Werner’s failure to properly pay student drivers is pending in Nebraska.”
According to a news release from Harris’ firm, this is the second significant verdict against Werner in 18 months. In May 2018, Werner was hit with a $90 million verdict for systematic safety and training failures in a multiple fatality case involving a student driver.
Werner’s truck driving schools
Among the largest trucking companies, Werner employs about 10,000 drivers and owns more than 7,400 trucks. Werner also owns 15 driving schools that it uses to train its own applicants in need of a CDL.
According to court documents, Carlos Romay oversees all 15 driving schools for Werner, including Roadmaster Drivers School. Roadmaster was acquired by Werner in 2015.
Court documents point out that Werner relies on its own schools to churn out drivers to address its high turnover rate:
“Werner relies upon these schools, including Roadmaster, to provide Werner with a constant pipeline of new drivers due to Werner’s high turnover rates. Werner has a yearly turnover rate of around 80%, which requires Werner to hire 8,000 new drivers per year. Out of these 8,000 new hires each year, 50% have zero commercial driving experience, while another 25% have less than three months of commercial driving experience. This means that over 60% of Werner’s driving force at any given time has less than three months of commercial driving experience.”
Attorneys for the Armijos claim that the majority of the 4,000 drivers hired by Werner each year who have no experience graduate from one of Werner’s driving schools.
According to the complaint, Roadmaster is a three- to four-week driving school to obtain a CDL. Students receive about 40 hours of time behind the wheel, none of which is over the road. As its website suggests, the school is for the purpose of obtaining a CDL, not to drive without supervision.[Werner website screenshot]
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Federal regulations regarding new drivers
Court documents refer to federal regulations governing who is qualified to safely operate a commercial vehicle. One requirement mandates that drivers be qualified “by reason of experience, training or both.”
In 1997, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a bulletin stating merely possessing a CDL does not mean a driver has the knowledge and skills necessary to drive a truck. In fact, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association referenced that document in its 2005 lawsuit against the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regarding minimum training requirements for entry-level CMV operators.
That 1997 publication tells prospective employers of truckers to be aware of the following:
A CDL does not indicate that the holder is a trained or experienced truck or bus driver.
A CDL merely indicates that the holder has passed minimal skills and knowledge tests concerning the type of vehicle he or she proposes to drive.
“As made clear by the 1997 bulletin, a commercial vehicle operator, such as Werner, is putting lives at risk by implementing a policy that assumes someone who has a commercial driver license is qualified to safely operate a commercial vehicle without further supervision or training,” the lawsuit states.
OOIDA has been pushing for federal entry-level driver training rules for decades. FMCSA has delayed such a rule, stating it needs more time. OOIDA president and CEO Todd Spencer said the move “will only delay the expected safety benefits of the final rule from being realized.”
Werner could not be reached for comment.