Jury awards trucker $705,000 in suit against Flying J

| 7/25/2002

It's been 19 months since truckdriver Michael Stamathis was arrested and accused of stealing $138 worth of diesel at the Flying J Travel Center in Wytheville, VA, in December 2000, but he finally got his day in court. After a two-day trial ending July 17, the federal jury awarded Stamathis $705,000 in damages from Flying J and manager David L. Hansen for malicious prosecution and defamation.

"It wasn't the money, it's the principal," Stamathis told Land Line. "I'm taking a stand for every hardworking truckdriver. It wasn't me they were trying to screw over that night, it was every truckdriver."

The award, which was $105,000 more than Stamathis asked for in his lawsuit, included $250,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $450,000 in punitive damages against Flying J and $5,000 against Hansen.

"I didn't even think they could do that," Stamathis said. "I was in shock." The Maryland trucker, whose story was chronicled in Land Line last year, said he pulled into the Wytheville Flying J at exit 77 off I-81 and I-77 in Wytheville around 7:55 p.m. Dec. 18, 2000, and waited with the other trucks backed up to the ramp waiting to get fuel. It was 8:10 p.m. when he finally pulled up to the pump and inserted his fuel card into the pump card reader, which accepted his card. He then put in a frequent-fueler card, but it was denied. When the pump did not work, Stamathis said he called the fuel clerk using the pump-side phone and gave the clerk his identifying information.

After fueling his truck, Stamathis said he moved his truck so other truckers could get to the pumps. After not finding a parking spot in the truckstop lot, he finally parked at the Citgo convenience store next door, like many other drivers do. As Stamathis retrieved his shower bag and a change of clothes, a sheriff's deputy arrested him. According to Stamathis, he told the officer he had not stolen any fuel and was just on his way back to Flying J after parking his truck and getting his shower bag. As he explained the problems he had with the fuel card reader, Hansen from the Flying J came over and insisted the officer arrest Stamathis for stealing fuel. Stamathis reports he was handcuffed, taken to the police station, charged with petty larceny for stealing 100 gallons of diesel fuel and released on his own recognizance.

Stamathis says in addition to calling the sheriff's office, Hansen also called Stamathis' employer (J-Mar Trucking in Alabama) and told a dispatcher Stamathis had left without paying for fuel and was on drugs. Additionally, he told the dispatcher the sheriff had taken Stamathis to the station for testing. Hansen then went to the sheriff's department, filed a criminal complaint against Stamathis and suggested the deputy should perform a drug test on Stamathis.

Apparently, while Stamathis was being booked at the sheriff's office, his fuel purchase was processed back at the Flying J. In March, the criminal complaint was dismissed after he produced the fuel card transaction report with the date and time Flying J processed the payment.

Stamathis has since left J-Mar Trucking. His attorney Paul Klockenbrink of Roanoke, VA, said Stamathis felt betrayed by the trucking company, who had an account with Flying J. Before charges against him were dropped, Stamathis said he complained all the way up to J-Mar's vice president with no results.

Kenneth Ries, the Roanoke attorney who represented Flying J and Hansen, expressed his disappointment at the jury verdict in a statement to the Roanoke Times. "On behalf of Flying J and its employee. Flying J and Mr. Hansen have maintained that their actions were very appropriate under the circumstances. We will explore all legal options available to Flying J at this time."

Klockenbrink said the case hinged on whether or not Flying J and its employee had probable cause to believe Stamathis intended to steal fuel.

"The jury just wasn't buying the defense's argument," Klockenbrink said. "When you're going to mess with someone's life and job, you must have your ducks in a row."

With this lawsuit behind him, Stamathis is considering his employment options. "I'm trying to find a company that doesn't use Flying J for their fuel stops. Or, maybe I could buy my own truck."
--René Tankersley, feature editor