Truck Accident Lawsuits

Common causes of trucking accidents, the interplay of applicable laws, and who might be liable if you're injured in a crash with a big rig.

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.

Common Causes of Car Accidents With 18-Wheelers

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.

Truck Driver Fatigue and Drug Use

Drowsiness or fatigue can:

  • significantly lessen a driver's ability to control the truck
  • impair judgment
  • reduce reaction times, and
  • prevent the driver from making safe driving decisions.

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.

Truck Driver Errors

Driver errors such as taking a curve too fast, exceeding the speed limit, and failing to monitor blind spots can also lead to collisions.

Tractor-Trailer Equipment Problems

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:

  • removing or depowering the front brakes (to minimize the expense of tire and brake wear and replacement costs)
  • failing to maintain the brakes
  • improper loading or securing of cargo, contributing to truck rollover
  • defective steering
  • failure to maintain tires, leading to a blowout, and
  • improperly attaching the trailer, increasing the risk of jackknifing.

Other Common Causes of Trucking Accidents

Other causes of big rig accidents include weather conditions, traffic signal failures, and faulty road design.

Truck Accident Laws

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.

Federal Trucking Laws

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 Trucking Laws

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.

Who Is Liable for a Trucking Accident?

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:

  • the truck driver
  • the owner of the truck or trailer
  • the cargo loader
  • the truck manufacturer or a parts manufacturer, or even
  • a local government or contractor responsible for highway design or maintenance.

If several parties could be held liable for a truck accident, you might be able to maximize your compensation by making multiple claims.

Truck Driver Liability

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 Company Liability

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:

  • How much control does the trucking company have over the driver?
  • Can the driver enter into contracts with other trucking companies, or is the driver exclusively with one carrier?
  • Does the trucking company set the driver's working hours and routes?
  • Can the driver refuse a load?
  • How does the trucking company pay the driver?
  • Is the driver responsible for insurance, including workers' compensation and liability insurance?
  • Is the trucking company using the driver's independent contractor status to shield it from liability even though the driver performs all the functions that an employee would perform?

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.

Cargo Shipper and Loader Liability

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.

Truck and Parts Manufacturer Liability

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 Government Liability

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.

What Should I Do If I Get in an Accident With a Big-Rig Truck?

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:

  • Check your passengers and the other driver to make sure they're safe.
  • Next, notify the authorities about the incident.
  • Be sure to get the truck driver's information, including insurance information and contact information. Ask if the driver is an employee of the trucking company, an independent contractor driving an owned vehicle, or operating a vehicle under a lease.
  • Use your phone to take photos of any damage and any logos or signage on the truck.
  • Note the road conditions, weather conditions, and any other conditions that might have contributed to the crash.
  • Get the names and addresses of any witnesses.

Gathering Evidence for Your Trucking Accident Case

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.

Check High-Tech Devices and Preserve the Data

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.

Review the Driving Log

An examination of the driving log can confirm whether the driver followed federal and state laws and rules on rest periods.

Get Information from Government Agencies

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.

Damages in a Trucking Accident Personal Injury Lawsuit

If you're the victim of a big-rig accident, your damages might include:

  • Economic damages. Economic damages include medical care and rehabilitation costs, loss of earnings, and loss of earning capacity. In addition to car damage, property damages include items in your vehicle when the crash happened, like electronics or even prescription glasses.
  • Noneconomic damages. You might also have a claim for pain and suffering, emotional distress, disfigurement, or loss of enjoyment of life.
  • Punitive damages. "Punitive damages" are damages that punish a carrier or other party that acts in bad faith, such as being dishonest or reckless.

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.

Talk to a Lawyer

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.

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