Navistar International recently lost an appeal of a ruling ordering it to pay $5.1 million to the family of a Georgia woman who died in a 1989 accident.
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld a decision that if Navistar had included a manual brake-control valve, the tendency to jackknife when the driver slammed on the brakes would have been reduced. Grace Lindsey was killed when a driver lost control of empty doubles.
“We’re not pleased with the verdict,” says Navistar spokesman Greg Brooke.
According to sources close to the case, the limiting valve was a device that the driver could turn on that would redistribute the brake power to compensate for an empty or light load. Although they had been used in Europe, their effectiveness was questioned by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and they were not in use on U.S. trucks. Although the device could help prevent the trailer from jackknifing, it also could cause the rig to take longer to stop in a straight-line situation. In addition, because the valve was manual, there was a good possibility truckers wouldn’t remember to use it — or would resist doing it, as they resisted antilock brakes in the ’70s.
The lawsuit originally claimed that there should have been antilock brakes on the 1982 Navistar truck. The court found that the plaintiffs did not prove that ABS was a feasible design, and the limiting valve issue was brought up midway through the case.
The decision has no bearing on today’s heavy duty trucks, Brooke says, because the federal government requires ABS on new trucks. “I think the important thing,” Brooke says, “is that what we lost on is an issue that’s been taken care of with ABS.”
Even though Navistar won on the ABS issue, the possibility still exists for lawsuits against truck makers who did not install ABS in later years as it did become feasible.