Driver and Company Liability for Commercial Truck Accidents

After a truck accident, is the driver on the legal hook, or is an employer or business financially responsible?

After a traffic accident involving a big rig, delivery truck or other commercial vehicle, even if it's clear that the driver is at fault it's not always easy to figure out who is financially responsible. Let's answer some key questions.

When is a Company Liable for a Driver's Conduct?

"Respondeat superior" (a Latin phrase meaning "let the superior answer" is the primary theory of liability that can hold a company responsible for a traffic accident caused by a truck driver employee. The employer can be liable for wrongful acts committed by an employee or agent provided the acts were unintentional and were committed within the scope of employment.

Is the Driver an Employee or Independent Contractor?

The first thing the injured person must show is that the truck driver is an employee of the company, rather than an independent contractor. That's because a company is generally not liable for wrongful acts committed by independent contractors.

Although each state's laws may differ, generally the emphasis is placed on whether the employer has the right to control the detailed manner and means that the work must be performed. If the employer controls the result of the work, but not how the result is accomplished, then an independent contractor relationship is probable.

For example, if a truck driver used his own truck, furnished his own gas and purchased his own liability insurance coverage, assumed the cost of repairs, was paid on a "per route" basis, and received no employee benefits—and the company did not withhold taxes from the driver's paychecks or instruct the driver how to make deliveries or how to drive the truck, likely the truck driver is an independent contractor.

What Acts Are "Within the Scope of Employment"?

Determining what constitutes an act committed "within the scope of employment" can be difficult. Courts tend to look at:

  • the intent of the employee at the time of the accident
  • the nature, time, and place of the employee's conduct
  • the type of work the employee was hired to do
  • incidental acts the employer should reasonably expect the employee to do
  • amount of freedom allowed to the employee in performing his or her duties, and
  • amount of time consumed in the personal activity.

For example, if a truck driver rear-ends a car while making a delivery, the employer would probably be liable for any harm that results because the truck driver was acting "within the scope of employment". Now suppose the truck driver leaves work early to go to a basketball game and hits another car outside of the stadium. Here, an argument can be made that the company should not be liable for the driver's negligence because the truck driver was not acting "within the scope of employment".

How Do Multiple Defendants Affect a Truck Accident Lawsuit?

When a personal injury lawsuit is filed against multiple defendants, they may all be equally responsible for paying the plaintiff's damages, or they may only be responsible for the damages they caused.

For example, a tired driver may share partial responsibility for an accident, along with the manufacturer of faulty tires. The plaintiff can sue the driver (or the driver's employer) as well as the manufacturer. If it's unclear just how much fault each party bears, the manufacturer could be required to pay its own share plus whatever amount the driver can't pay if he or she doesn't have sufficient insurance to cover the plaintiff's losses. A drawback of multiple defendants with unclear proportions of fault is that a settlement may be more difficult to obtain, and a trial more likely.

What If the Driver's Acts Were Intentional?

Generally, an employer is not liable for the intentional torts (i.e., assault, battery, kidnapping) committed by its employee. The rationale is that the purpose of the "respondeat" principle is not being met when the employee's acts are not related to the business enterprise.

For example, if a truck driver slams into another vehicle because the driver of the other vehicle was sleeping with the truck driver's spouse, the company will probably not be liable.

Note on State and Federal Regulations

Semi-truck operators, owners and manufacturers must adhere to a wide variety of state and federal regulations. How much weight a rig can haul, how long a driver can go without rest, and quality control in manufacturing and repair are just a small fraction of the kinds of conduct regulated in the trucking business.

In any given accident where the truck driver is at fault, chances are a statute, ordinance, or regulation was violated, and any violation increases a plaintiff's odds of winning at trial. The higher the odds of winning at trial, the more willing a defendant is to settle before trial.

Another important aspect of state and federal regulation is the higher insurance requirements imposed on owners and operators of semi-trucks. For all practical purposes, a defendant in any kind of case will only be able to settle for an amount he or she can actually afford—or the maximum amount allowed by his or her insurance company (i.e. the policy limit).

The higher minimum policy limits of semi-truck insurance set by law mean that even if the driver or employer only carried the minimum amount, the plaintiff will probably not be stuck with a small settlement. This is often not the case with the minimum required insurance in "standard" car accident cases.

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