JANESVILLE Freightliner had a chance to settle for $55,000 but instead will pay several hundred thousand dollars after a federal jury sided in favor of a Janesville father and son in a lawsuit over a defective semitrailer tractor.
The case was tried under the state’s lemon law. Wisconsin is the only state that has a law that covers semitrailer trucks.
Randy Seeman and his son Jason paid more than $117,000 for the new truck in September 2007.
Their attorney, Vince Megna, said the truck developed engine problems and was in and out of several authorized repair shops around the state without a solution.
Megna said the Seemans asked Freightliner for a refund or a new truck, but they got no response. Jewel Truckingâ€”the Seemans’ businessâ€”then filed suit.
A jury in November decided that the truck had at least one problem and that the problem continued after the fourth visit to a repair shop. The jury also determined that the truck was out of service for at least 30 days because of one or more problems.
The court ordered Freightliner to pay the Seemans $255,000â€”twice the amount of their actual losses allowed under the lemon law. It also tacked on interest charges and other costs to push the total above $290,000.
In addition, the court ordered Freightliner to pay the Seemans’ attorneys fees of $225,000.
Megna, who is a national lemon law expert with the Waukesha firm of Aiken Scoptur, said it was the largest jury award in semitrailer truck lemon law case.
Megna said the truck was in the shop 16 times for a series of engine problems. At the trial, an expert witness for Freightliner said trucks such as the Seemans’ often are in the shop 10 to 12 times in their first year, Megna said.
Megna said he found that testimony incredible. Apparently, the jury did, too.
“This truck really was a disaster,” Megna said.
He hopes the case draws attention to the fact that other state’s lemon laws don’t cover the big trucks.
“It creates an unfortunate playing field for owner-operators around the country,” he said. “I get lots of calls from truck drivers around the country, but unfortunately there’s nothing we can do.
“The small owner-operator is in such a dismal position; they’re operating on a shoestring, and they have no clout.”
Megna said large fleet operators are in a better position to deal with manufacturers over defective trucks. They have the muscle and buying power to demand satisfaction, he said.
“We’ve made a statement with this case, and somehow we’ve got to raise awareness of the issue these owner-operators face,” he said. “It’s not like all these other states have to come up with new laws, they just have to amend the laws that are already on the books.
“Maybe the best thing would be for all the drivers in neighboring states to come to Wisconsin to buy their trucks. That would bring attention to the problem.”
Megna said that the Seemans do not want to speak with reporters until the final settlement. In the meantime, the truck remains parked in their yard, although Megna said it would likely be returned to Freightliner.
Jewel Trucking is now out of business, the result of several factors including the defective truck, Megna said
Megna said that at one point in the case Randy Seeman was nervous about its outcome. He and Megna offered to settle the case for $55,000, and Freightliner countered with $33,000.
“At that point, we took our offer off the table and proceeded to trial,” Megna said.