If you're involved in an accident with a big rig, things can get more complicated than they might after a more run-of-the-mill traffic accident. Understanding the common reasons for trucking accidents, the laws involved, and the relationships among the entities (connected to the truck, trailer, and load) can help you determine whether you have a valid personal injury claim after a truck accident.
A lot can go wrong in the operation of a semi-trailer truck. Truck-driver error is the leading cause of car accidents with big rigs. Common scenarios involve (among others) driver fatigue, drug use, driver error, and equipment issues.
Drowsiness or fatigue can:
A tired driver might fall asleep, be inattentive, or misjudge driving conditions.
Controlled substances can have a similar impact. Federal regulations require trucking companies to test their drivers for alcohol and drug use as a condition of employment. Carriers also must conduct periodic random tests of drivers who are on duty, and test any driver involved in an accident involving a fatality.
Driver errors such as taking a curve too fast, exceeding the speed limit, and failing to monitor blind spots can also lead to collisions.
Another common cause of truck accidents is equipment or mechanical failure. Manufacturing problems (like defective tires) or design errors (such as failing to provide backup warnings or object detection systems) can lead to crashes.
Failure to properly maintain equipment can also lead to trucking accidents. A few common failures that often lead to mechanical problems are:
Other causes of big rig accidents include weather conditions, traffic signal failures, and faulty road design.
The failure to comply with federal or state laws and regulations can provide the basis for a personal injury case after a big rig accident.
The bulk of federal regulations dealing with the trucking industry are in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Federal trucking laws establish standards that carriers, owners, and drivers must meet, and often determine who's responsible for a trucking accident.
For example, federal law limits the number of hours that drivers can work. Drivers of property-carrying commercial vehicles can work a maximum of 14 consecutive hours, during which time they can drive for a maximum of 11 straight hours. The driver must be off-duty for ten consecutive hours before starting a shift. A driver can't drive after being on duty for 60 hours over seven consecutive days or 70 hours in eight consecutive days, depending on whether the carrier operates its vehicles every day of the week. (49 C.F.R. § 395.3). Federal law also requires truckers to record their driving information in logbooks. (49 C.F.R. § 395.8).
Agencies that regulate truck driving include the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The USDOT sets safety regulations, while the FMCSA works to prevent deaths and injuries from commercial motor vehicles. Truck safety standards regulate, for instance, truck weight, equipment, and emissions. Also, trucking companies have to maintain various levels of insurance coverage depending upon the type of materials they transport.
State laws also cover the trucking industry. These laws typically set speed limits for commercial truckers and sleep requirements for drivers. Every state has a department of transportation with its own set of trucking regulations. State departments of transportation control everything from driver licensing to vehicle inspections.
Proving liability after a truck accident is often more complicated than after a basic car-to-car collision. After a truck crash, a number of parties could be legally responsible for a victim's injuries and other losses ("damages"), including:
If several parties could be held liable for a truck accident, you might be able to maximize your compensation by making multiple claims.
If a trucker caused a collision because of negligent behavior like fatigued or distracted driving or speeding, you could sue the driver. Because a truck driver is also usually responsible for inspecting the truck for maintenance and making sure cargo is loaded correctly, if a maintenance problem or cargo shift contributes to a truck accident, the trucker could be at least partly responsible for the incident.
But because a truck driver's insurance coverage might not be able to fully compensate you for your injuries, your lawyer will probably look for other potentially responsible parties, like the trucking company.
Trucking companies sometimes try to shield themselves from trucking accident liability by requiring drivers to own their trucks as independent owner-operators. But a trucking company's contention that the driver is the only liable party because of an independent contractor relationship won't always hold water.
Some of the questions that a court takes into consideration when deciding if the trucking company is also liable include:
After reviewing these factors (and others) the court will determine the connection between the company and the driver, and assign liability. In most cases, classifying a driver as an independent contractor won't relieve the trucking company of liability.
Under federal regulations, a company owning a trucking permit is responsible for all accidents involving a truck that has its placard or name displayed on the vehicle. It doesn't matter if the driver is an employee or independent contractor. (If a trucking company leases a truck from an owner or driver, the trucking company generally obtains the necessary permits to operate the truck. The vehicle then displays the trucking company name and its permit numbers.) But not all jurisdictions apply liability in the same way.
When a carrier works as a contractor to ship cargo for another company, the shipment could be sealed the whole time the trucking company deals with it. If someone improperly loaded or secured the cargo, that party could be liable for the accident. For example, a loader that used incorrect straps, overloaded the trailer, or failed to use enough tie-downs could potentially be held liable.
If one of the truck parts fails (a tire blows out, the brakes fail, or a steering problem occurs, for example) the failure could be due to poor maintenance. Or, if the failed part or system was defective, you might be able to hold the manufacturer and distributor liable.
Local governments and their contractors could be liable for a crash if the roadway has defects, like a flawed design, broken pavement, or an area of pooled rainwater that contributed to the collision. Other possible causes of an accident attributable to the local government or its contractors include a work zone set-up that led to a crash, insufficient warning signs, and defective guardrails.
If you get in a collision with a big rig and don't need immediate medical treatment, here's what you should do before leaving the scene:
After a crash, sometimes it's evident that one of the drivers did something wrong, like when you find an eyewitness who says that the truck driver failed to obey a traffic signal. But other times, getting the evidence you need to prove your case can be a bit more complicated. For example, proving that fatigue played a role in diminishing a driver's attention, performance, or reaction time can be challenging.
If you decide to file a personal injury lawsuit, a few key places to get information about a trucking accident are high-tech devices, driving logs, and government agencies. Your lawyer needs to request this information before the trucking company routinely disposes of it in the course of business.
Carriers often use an electronic logging device or an event data recorder to record information about the truck and how it's operated, including the route, vehicle miles, speed, when the driver uses the brakes, and hours of service. Other devices the carrier might use include an onboard computer, a global positioning system, and an inclinometer, which provides data about a slope's angles and rounding corners safely.
An examination of the driving log can confirm whether the driver followed federal and state laws and rules on rest periods.
Federal and state laws require a certified truck inspector to inspect any commercial truck involved in an accident before the vehicle is removed from the scene. The resulting report will state the condition of the important mechanical parts of the semi-truck and trailer. But the report won't be part of the local police report; you have to get it from the appropriate government agency.
If you're the victim of a big-rig accident, your damages might include:
The amount of compensation you might be able to get depends on the specific circumstances of your case and a variety of other factors, like the severity of the injuries you suffered, your medical bills, and the quality of the evidence you've collected to support your claim.
It's important to make sure you know all of your options if you've been injured in a truck collision. Since these cases can be so complex, you should consider consulting with an attorney who can protect your legal rights and help you decide your next steps.