A North Carolina trucking company accused of hauling hazardous materials without proper warning placards is asking a St. Francis County circuit judge for new trial or a reduced jury award to six first responders who worked a fatal accident.
The company, Old Dominion Freight Line Inc., called the $75 million award “excessive” and fueled by “passion or prejudice” after judgments of $5 million to $25 million went to the six first responders affected by fumes.
Their lawsuit said they had no idea that the Old Dominion tractor-trailer involved was hauling dangerous material because it displayed no warning placards. And after the accident, the company didn’t immediately notify the responders that the trailer was carrying unsafe material that left them with breathing problems and a burning sensation in their nasal passages, according to the suit, which was filed in 2020.
The awards were “shocking to the conscience,” Zachary Hill of Munson Rowlett Moore & Boone of Little Rock wrote in his Dec. 22 motion. Hill represents Old Dominion and its driver, Aaron Marvell Foster of Memphis, who was also named as a defendant. Hill told Arkansas Business that he customarily does not comment on ongoing litigation. But court filings lay out plans to file an appeal if his motion for a new trial fails.
The publicly traded company, one of the largest American less-than-truckload motor carriers, had revenue of $3.8 billion and net income of $756 million for the nine months that ended Sept. 30.
The fatal crash in the case occurred on April 20, 2018, on U.S. Highway 70 near the St. Francis and Crittenden County lines. The Old Dominion tractor-trailer was hauling several items when a 2012 Ford F-series pickup truck crossed the center line and crashed head-on into the tractor-trailer. The accident killed the driver of the Ford and left Old Dominion’s vehicle burning and on its side.
As first responders arrived, an Arkansas State Police officer asked Old Dominion’s driver, Foster, who had no apparent injuries, if he was delivering any hazardous materials. “Foster answered ‘no,’” the suit said.
The plaintiffs were represented by Sach D. Oliver, Frank H. Bailey, Ryan Scott, Geoff Hamby and Samuel W. Mason of the Bailey & Oliver Law Firm in Rogers.
The State Police officer also said that he didn’t see any signs saying the trailer contained hazardous materials.
The responders cleaning up the wreck on the highway noticed a “strange odor and that they were experiencing a burning sensation in their nasal passages and throat and that there must be some type of chemical on board,” the suit said.
After the accident, neither the driver nor any company representative alerted the State Police that hazardous materials were in the trailer, the suit said.
“The actions of the Old Dominion representative and Defendant Foster constitute intentional efforts to deny law enforcement critical information relating to the wreck including the fact that hazardous materials were present in the Old Dominion trailers,” the suit said.
Some four hours after the accident Old Dominion revealed that its trailer contained formic acid, a colorless combustible liquid with a strong, penetrating odor. It is used in dyeing and finishing textiles and paper, treating leather and making other chemicals, the suit said. “Poisonous gases are produced in fires involving formic acid,” the suit said. The short-term effects included severe irritation and burning of the skin and eyes, headaches, dizziness and vomiting.
By the time the first responders realized that the tractor-trailer had contained formic acid, it was too late, the suit said.
The injuries suffered by a sergeant with the Arkansas State Police included burning of nasal passages and throat irritation. He described his injury “as if someone reached down in his throat, grabbed both of his lungs, and ripped them out,” according to the suit.
He will likely always continue to suffer symptoms and will have lifetime breathing difficulties, the lawsuit said.
Other first responders injured included a corporal with the St. Francis County sheriff’s office and four employees of White Motor Co. Towing & Recovery of Forrest City.
The plaintiffs have remained at their jobs but have taken adjusted roles and assignments because of the injuries.
Oliver, the plaintiffs’ attorney, was pleased with the verdict. “Our jury system works and it was evident in this case,” he said in a statement to Arkansas Business. “It’s critical that the safety of first responders is never compromised or unnecessarily risked.”