A Broward jury found that National Truck Center, a Miami-based company, was 95 percent at fault in an accident that resulted in the death of 41-year-old plumber Werner K. Letterman.
After an emotional trial, the jury concluded that Letterman’s mother, Susan Letterman, should be awarded $15,502,880. Their decision on May 25 ended a three-year battle to assign responsibility to National Truck Center in a case fought by plaintiffs counsel Clark, Fountain, La Vista, Prather, Keen & Littky-Rubin in West Palm Beach.
“It was just a horrific situation and a horrific loss, combined with liability issues, where our whole contention was that this could have been easily prevented,” said Hampton Keen, one of the plaintiffs attorneys.
Keen, along with Julie Littky-Rubin, came aboard six months before trial, while Donald Fountain and Jason Cornell worked on the case since its inception.
The suit stemmed from a collision On Dec. 27, 2013. Letterman was in Palm Beach County, driving a pumper truck northbound on the I-95, when its front right tire blew out, failed and sustained a tread or belt separation, according to the complaint filed in Feb. 2015.
The truck then “lost stability,” collided with a tree and caught fire. Despite attempts made by motorists to keep him alive, Letterman died at the scene.
The following day, Dr. Glen Axelson of the Office of Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy and concluded that Letterman’s blood showed no sign of alcohol or drugs.
Instead, it appeared the truck had been defective.
“This truck should never have been on the road in the condition that it was, and the root cause was National Truck Center,” Keen said.
Letterman’s vehicle, used as a septic pump truck, began life as a tractor-trailer, but was modified by National Truck Center, which specializes in custom vacuum truck sales and manufacturing. After undergoing significant modifications, the vehicle was then bought in 2007 by Letterman’s employer, Rudy Garcia, owner of Rudy’s Plumbing Service, Inc. in West Palm Beach.
“Rudy actually testified in the case that he had no idea it had been rebuilt in the manner that it had,” said Keen.
What’s more, Garcia testified that, he never would have bought the truck had he known about the extensive modifications.
“He was a humble gentleman, a good man, and the jury believed him with respect to that,” Keen said.
According to Keen, the pumper truck was carrying a load of 1,000 to 1,500 pounds.
“That dynamic, according to our expert, overloaded the system and was the direct correlation for why this truck was uncontrollable,” Keen said.
What’s more, when National Truck had modified the vehicle, they’d added larger tires and rims, which altered the vehicle’s steering dynamics, plaintiff lawyers said.
“In conjunction with that, you have a changed center of gravity because of this big load and lengthened frame,” Keen added.
The way the plaintiffs counsel team saw it, proving strict liability would mean demonstrating that when National Truck made the changes, it had essentially manufactured a new vehicle.
“Even though we had evidence that National Truck had been negligent, we wanted to show that it was also strictly liable. And it would have to have been the ‘manufacturer’ of a new vehicle in order to be held responsible for strict liability,” co-counsel Julie Littky-Rubin said.
For the plaintiff’s side, the case turned on convincing jurors that the truck was a new vehicle.
“The jury found that the modifications were so substantial that what National Trucks started with and what it ended with was something completely different,” Littky-Rubin said.
The team also alleged that National Truck had failed to place a required sticker on the truck, indicating that it had been rebuilt or significantly modified.
“There was somewhat conflicting testimony as to whether or not that sticker had ever been put on the truck, but we believe it had never been put on. Our contention was that was part of a warning that would have been present for Rudy or anyone else subsequently that either serviced the truck or purchased the truck,” Keen said.
National Truck Center countered these claims with responses which, according to Cornell, are typical in cases like these. In answer to the complaint, it claimed the plaintiff’s damages were beyond its control and “caused by the negligence of third parties.”
The company moved to assign liability to Rudy’s Plumbing Service, which had purchased the truck; Shandong Linglong Tire Co., which designed and installed the tires, Southeast Truck Specialist, which maintained and inspected the tires, and to Werner Letterman, who had died in the crash.
Shandong Linglong was found to be 5 percent at fault and had previously settled.
National Truck stipulated that they had relied on top professionals across Florida to maintain their vehicles, so if, in fact, there was something wrong with the truck, these experts were to blame.
But Cornell said, “There were no engineering specifications that National Truck followed in building this truck. Instead, it was the equivalent of designing this truck on the back of an envelope, and the jury realized that.”
Defense attorneys, Douglas W. Barnes of Kelley Kronenberg in Fort Lauderdale and James Sherman of the Law Offices of Richard A. Sherman, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
One powerful factor jurors considered: Werner Letterman’s minor child, Tyler, who now had to change his life in the wake of his father’s death. The boy had to move to a senior living community in Jupiter to live with his grandmother, where he had no bedroom of his own and had to give up his puppy because it was not allowed in the apartment complex. He also had to switch schools.
Ultimately, the jury awarded every single dollar the plaintiff’s team had requested during closing argument.
Case: Susan Letterman, as personal representative of the Estate of Werner Letterman, v. National Truck Center Inc.
Case No.: 2015CA001204AF
Description: Wrongful death
Filing date: Feb. 2, 2015
Settlement date: May 25, 2018
Judge: West Palm beach Circuit Judge Edward L. Artau
Plaintiffs attorneys: Donald Fountain, Jason Cornell, Hampton Keen and Julie Littky-Rubin, Clark Fountain La Vista Prather Keen & Littky-Rubin, West Palm Beach
Defense attorneys: Douglas Barnes, Kelley Kronenberg, Fort Lauderdale; James Sherman, the Law Offices of Richard A. Sherman, Fort Lauderdale
Settlement amount: $15,502,880
Read the verdict: