Truck accidents are different from ordinary car accidents. The damage is often catastrophic, and the legal cases are more complex. Hiring an experienced attorney gives you the best chance of recovering compensation for your injuries, pain and suffering, lost wages and other damages. 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.
Thousands of people are killed every year in accidents involving large trucks, leaving behind grieving families and financial ruin. Those who survive often have severe or disabling injuries, and the cost of medical treatment can be overwhelming. A variety of factors ranging from speeding to distracted driving to driver impairment can cause truck accidents. An experienced attorney who understands the complexities of truck accident law can help you determine who’s at fault and guide you through the process of seeking compensation.
Who Is Liable in a Truck Accident?
Determining who’s at fault is one of the critical issues in a truck accident case. In order to be successful, you must be able to prove that the truck driver or other parties were negligent. Trucking companies are often held liable for their employees’ negligence. If a truck driver is an independent contractor, on the other hand, he or she can be held personally responsible for causing a crash. Sometimes, trucking companies will try to claim that a trucker they employ is an independent contractor to try to get out of being sued. But independent contractors must meet very specific conditions under employment and tax laws. If a truck company is paying employment taxes, such as Social Security, Medicare and federal unemployment taxes, then the trucker is an employee, not a contractor. Other parties may also bear liability for a crash. If a defective part contributes to a crash, for example, the manufacturer of the part may be sued. Similarly, a cargo loader may be held responsible if improperly loaded cargo causes an accident.
Some common causes of truck accident negligence include:
• Careless driving
• Driver fatigue
• Driver impairment (alcohol, drugs, illness, etc.)
• Distracted driving
• Poor vehicle maintenance
• Equipment failure or defects
• Improper cargo loading
You may still be entitled to compensation even if you’re partly to blame for the accident. Most states follow the doctrine of comparative negligence when determining liability in a personal injury case. What that essentially means is that if you were determined to be 20 percent to blame for the accident, any damages collected would be reduced by that percentage. In that situation, if you were awarded $1 million, you’d be able to recover $800,000. Conversely, if you were found to be 80 percent responsible, you’d only be able to collect $200,000.
Accident Site Investigations
Investigations of the accident site are a key part of building your case, and a competent attorney will perform a thorough accident investigation. It’s important that your lawyer is on scene as soon as possible to talk to witnesses, take photographs and preserve critical evidence. Many trucks contain event data recorders known as black boxes that may provide evidence of actions that the truck driver took or didn’t take in the moments before the crash. This can help forensic investigators determine how the accident occurred. To reconstruct the accident, investigators will also examine a variety of other evidence, including: skid mark directions, the length of skid marks, points of impact, impact angles and the weight dimensions of each vehicle. They may even conduct crash tests to try to recreate the accident. Since many settlements are confidential, it’s impossible to pinpoint an average settlement figure. But it’s not unusual for settlements in truck accidents to reach into the millions.
Every case is different, but generally, the higher your medical bills and the longer you need treatment, the higher your settlement will climb.
Many truck accident victims miss substantial time from work, and some are unable to ever work again. Whatever the case, your lost wages will be figured into your settlement amount.
Because 18-wheelers are so massive, they tend to cause disastrous damage to the vehicles they hit. In that case, the insurance company will total your car. If the car can be fixed, cost of repairs will usually be determined by an insurance adjuster.
Pain and Suffering
Calculating pain and suffering isn’t as cut and dry as other damages. Also known as “non-economic” damages, pain and suffering includes everything from physical pain and disfigurement to loss of enjoyment of life and other types of emotional distress. Typically, the more severe an injury, the higher the payout for pain and suffering.
Personal injury attorneys typically work on a contingency basis, which means that your lawyer will take a percentage of whatever settlement you’re offered. Different law firms charge different amounts, so be sure to read the fine print of whatever agreement you sign when you hire a firm to represent you. In most cases, it’s the insurance companies that pay the verdicts and settlements in trucking accident litigation. Because of the nature of the commercial trucking industry, truck insurance policies usually have much higher liability limits than typical passenger automobile insurance policies. Interstate truckers hauling non-hazardous goods, for instance, are required by federal law to carry a minimum of $750,000 in liability insurance. Overdrive, a trucking industry magazine, suggests truckers consider carrying at least $5 million in coverage.
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.
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. Federal law also requires truckers to record their driving information in logbooks. 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.
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 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.
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.
• Contact your state attorney
Trucking Accident Lawyer
When you need a trucking accident attorney, please call Ascent Law LLC for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506