If a commercial truck injured you in an accident, you have likely heard discussions about liability. Liability is the legal responsibility that a negligent party owes to others to compensate them for physical injuries and property damage.
The trucking industry is among the most heavily regulated industries in the U.S. Because of this and vicarious liability, when a commercial truck driver causes an accident, the trucking company that employs them is often liable for losses. Read on for more information about when trucking companies are responsible for compensating losses caused by their drivers.
A Heavily Regulated Industry
More than 4,100 people die in accidents involving commercial trucks on U.S. roadways each year. Commercial trucks-more commonly referred to as semi-trucks or tractor-trailers-can weigh up to 80,000 pounds when fully loaded, 20-30 times more than a passenger car. They often measure around 72 feet long and 13.5 feet tall. These massive trucks cause equally enormous damage.
Because of their vehicles’ dimensions, truck drivers have sizable blind spots on all four sides. They have to make wide turns to get around sharp corners. They also take 20 to 40 percent more distance than a passenger vehicle to come to a safe stop after braking. Semis also have a higher center of gravity, which makes them prone to rolling over, and a higher ground clearance, which poses the often-deadly risk of a small vehicle becoming trapped beneath the truck in an accident.
Commercial trucks transport nearly three-quarters of all freight transported in the U.S., a multi-billion dollar industry. Because the commercial trucking industry poses so many risks, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulates the trucking industry.
These regulations state that drivers must:
- Obtain a special Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) to operate a truck
- Acquire additional liability insurance
- Inspect their vehicle’s systems to search for damage before each trip, and commit to a regular maintenance schedule for the truck
- Undergo routine physical exams to ensure they do not have medical conditions that could impair their driving ability
Truck drivers also have several restrictions.
For example, they must not:
- Drive while impaired: CDL holders may only have a blood alcohol content of 0.04 grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood, which is half the limit of 0.08 permitted for adult drivers in most states.
- Skip drug screenings: Drivers must undergo annual drug and alcohol screenings and screenings if they are involved in an accident.
- Drive an excessive number of hours: Commercial drivers must take regular breaks and may only drive a restricted number of hours during a week.
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When Is the Trucking Company Liable?
When investigating who is liable for a truck accident victim’s physical injuries and property damage, note that many truck drivers work as owner-operators or independent contractors providing services for a trucking company.
If a negligent owner-operator truck driver causes an accident, there likely is no vicarious liability for an employer. This situation gets a bit more confusing regarding independent contractors, as some contractors own their trucks while others use trucks owned by a company that contracts their services. In that situation, the individual or entity who owns the truck is likely liable through the truck’s liability insurance policy.
How to Prove Liability?
One must prove four elements to establish another party’s liability for losses incurred in a trucking accident caused by negligence. Here is an explanation of those elements and how a lawyer uses them to determine who is liable in your case.
First, your lawyer will determine whether the at-fault party owed you a duty of care. Commercial truckers owe other drivers a duty to operate trucks safely under state and federal laws.
Because trucking companies employ truck drivers to transport freight for their businesses, they also owe a duty of care to other drivers.
This duty is called vicarious liability. For example, trucking companies must:
- Ensure that their employees are appropriately licensed and trained to handle the day-to-day rigors of the job
- Regularly monitor employee driving records
- Provide insurance coverage for bodily injury or property damage as required under local laws
- Maintain trucks to eliminate dangerous mechanical issues
Your lawyer will also establish that the negligent party breached the duty of care.
For the truck driver who caused the accident, some actions that constitute a breach of duty include:
- Failing to operate the truck safely by avoiding distractions and obeying posted speed limits
- Operating the truck while too sick or tired to do so safely
- Driving the truck while impaired by alcohol or drugs
Some actions or omissions by a trucking company that could result in a breach of the duty of care include:
- Failing to obtain the required amount of insurance on the truck
- Failing to repair trucks
- Failing to vet driver applicants adequately
- Encouraging drivers to work extra hours, exceeding federally restricted driving limitations
Your lawyer will then show that the at-fault party’s breach of the duty of care caused your accident. For example, suppose the driver’s blood-alcohol content tested 0.15 percent after an accident. In that case, your lawyer must produce evidence to show that the driver’s alcohol impairment caused your accident.
Can you hold the trucking company liable for such an accident? Possibly, if their driver was working when the accident happened.
Finally, your lawyer will establish that you sustained losses in the truck accident. They will use your medical bills, mechanic invoices, and many other expenses estimates to calculate your total losses from the crash. They may hire an expert witness to validate your financial situation as well.
The Evidence Needed to Prove Liability in a Truck Accident
Collecting the evidence necessary for a trucking accident claim can be complicated. Because the trucking company possesses most of the evidence that would prove its liability, most lawyers act quickly to ensure that the company retains the necessary evidence.
This evidence can include:
- Inspection reports, including maintenance reports, pre-trip inspection reports, and the results of any inspection conducted after an accident
- The truck’s event data recorder, also known as its black box, which collects data like the truck’s speed before the accident, whether the driver braked, and how many hours the trucker drove before the accident
- The driver’s logbooks, which show whether they complied with hours of service regulations
- The driver’s personnel file, including proof that they passed their road test for the CDL, documentation of physical health and drug and alcohol screenings, and the most recent copy of their driving history
- Weigh station or loading dock reports showing that the truck was overweight and therefore harder to maneuver
Additionally, your lawyer will likely gather documentation from investigations completed after the accident, such as the police report.
Other evidence that can help provide liability includes:
- Photographs or videos of the scene
- Eyewitness testimony
- Expert witness testimony such as an accident reconstructionist
- Traffic camera footage
How a Lawyer Can Help You Hold Trucking Companies Accountable
An experienced truck accident lawyer can help you hold trucking companies accountable for negligence. Your lawyer will help determine all sources of liability, so you know where to file your claim.
In addition to determining liability, a lawyer can also communicate with the at-fault party’s insurance provider to protect your claim from shady insurance company tactics. Insurance companies make money from premiums and avoid making large payouts. They may deny or devalue your claim or try to convince you to accept a small settlement offer. Your lawyer protects your claim from these tactics by managing communication for you. They can negotiate a settlement with the insurer or take your case to court if needed to protect your rights.
If you have questions about who may be liable in your truck accident case, contact an experienced truck accident lawyer for a free case evaluation.