Representing a crash victim, an attorney exposes Werner’s training program in a wrongful death lawsuit.

December 2019/January 2020

Tyson Fisher

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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 wrongful death lawsuit against Werner Enterprises and one of its drivers. The trucker, Jose Johnson of Apopka, Fla., had just graduated from Werner’s Roadmaster Drivers School, raising questions about driver training.

The crash occurred in February 2017, after Johnson crossed four lanes of traffic and a paved median when he struck Armijo 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 attended the four-week course at Roadmaster’s Orlando location. According to court documents, he received grades of C 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. Court documents said that 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. Trainer Gabriel 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 also was prohibited from driving without an instructor present.

Nevertheless, 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 a trainer. 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 show 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.

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.

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. LL

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Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.