Accidents involving large commercial trucks, often referred to as a semi-truck accident, lead to huge injuries and loss of life. The sheer size, weight, and speeds at which these semi-truck accidents occur leads to correspondingly large harm to persons and property. The litigation surrounding them is also larger, more complex, than your car accident case. So, these semi-truck accident cases involve large corporations, complex contract matters, discovery, insurance companies, and federal and state laws.
The following information provides guidance on what you can expect if you have been a victim of a semi-truck accident. Specifically, it helps you understand the laws and cases in order to best help you understand your options after you were part of such a trucking accident.
Commercial Trucking Accidents Differ from Other Car Accidents
Your typical auto accident is the rear-end fender bender. A moment of inattention or tiredness or a heavy foot and suddenly the car behind you or beside you smashes into yours. When those little dangers involve big semi-trucks at highway speeds, the results are often loss of life and grievous injury.
Auto accidents involving commercial trucks and tractor trailers differ from the more common roadway incidents in a number of ways. Commercial trucking companies are subject to federal regulations for safety as well as state rules of the road. Accidents with a large semi-truck and trailer often lead to much more severe injuries and death than the typical rear-ending accident, especially because they often occur at highway speeds. Hence, trucking accidents often involve more complex litigation, due to discovery needs, special insurance held by trucking companies, and the number of parties potentially involved.
The Law of Semi-truck Accidents
A. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
Commercial trucks, semi-trucks, and tractor trailers are all required to follow higher standards of safety than other types of vehicles. If they carry goods between states, or restricted goods, or the vehicle requires a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to operate, they are governed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) rules. The FMCSA has requirements above and beyond those created by the state of Arizona.
The Hazards of Semi-truck Accidents: Over-the-road Drivers and Long-haul Truckers
Fatigue, inadequate maintenance, and overloading are common causes of trucker accidents. The FMCSA requires trucking companies to keep accurate records of hours worked, miles traveled, and rest time. It also requires logs of brake, tire, and engine maintenance. A semi can weigh as much as 25 times the average car. When they are overloaded, accidents may occur with that 40-ton vehicle. The average passenger car, however, weighs only about one and a half tons. Simple physics makes the danger clear.
These laws and any violations thereof may serve as powerful evidence in your case if your trucking accident attorney can show that they are causally linked to the accident that caused your injuries.
B. The Legal Investigation After Semi-truck Accidents
Like every state, Arizona has created laws that dictate driver behavior on its roads. These regulations are created to make the roads safe for everyone who uses them. Violation of these laws is not only a crime but may serve as decisive evidence in a negligence claim against the truck driver and his company. Even if your suit is brought in federal court, choice of law will likely favor applying Arizona laws.
Speeding, improper lane changes, failing to signal, and other common traffic laws apply to truckers just as they do to you and every other driver. When they break these rules, they can serve as strong evidence of negligence.
The facts to look for after a semi-truck accident are:
This list is exhaustive and each case is different, but these are crucial points:
- Should obtain the police report from the investigating agency.
- You should check the citation status and outcome.
- Should obtain the maps of the area, such as aerial photographs and Google Earth images. It is further important to understand the roadway area before visiting the scene of the incident.
- Should obtain the news of the accident, such as newspaper article outlines of all news broadcasts covering the accident together with order recordings of all news broadcasts and other sources including witnesses, photos, and footage wherever possible.
- An investigator may have the right to obtain witness statements, especially of those persons who have been identified in news reports but not in the police report.
- Online resources can provide invaluable information. Use of online sources, such as carrier website, corporation commission file (incorporation date, annual reports), public company (annual reports), and governmental and organization sources. Online sites such as www.fmcsa.dot.gov, safer.fmcsa.dot.gov, www.trucking.org, www.truckinginfo.com, www.truckaccidents.com, CSA.FMCSA.dot.gov, and www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety-security/pcs/index.aspx can provide much-needed background into the driver, their motor carrier’s background, and driving records. Search of industry websites like www.thetruckersreport.com should be made on Google as well.
An investigation of the driver should be done as well, and these are points to consider:
- Home address of the driver and his route issues.
- Driving records of the driver from all states where he is licensed.
- A background check on the driver.
- Every truck driver is compulsorily required to undergo DOT medical examination.
- Physical qualifications required for a motor carrier driver is provided by the FMCSA.
- Reasons for lack of physical qualification is provided.
- Examination results at the scene of the accident of the driver must be recorded.
- Fatigue-related issues, eyesight, and blood pressure of motor carrier driver should be looked into.
- Medication used by motor carrier driver should be checked. For example, diabetes can lead to fatigue, sleep disorders (apnea), chronic back pain/pain killers, depression can cause fatigue, and medications can also lead to drowsiness.
Evaluation of the Semi-truck and Tractor Trailer from the DMV Records:
- Initial investigation should be carried out for the tractor in the following ways:
- Make, model, and year of manufacture
- Engine size and type
- Gross weight
- Tire size
- The axle/differential ratios
- Transmission specifications
- Braking system / Jake Brake
- If there is a governor then the limits of the governor
- Recording devices such as GPS, ECM, EDR, automated log system, or any other
- Email availability
- Any customizations
Initial investigation of a trailer will include the following:
- Date of manufacture
- Empty weight/gross weight at the time of the accident
- Braking system
- Tire size
- Axle location
- Braking system
Once an exhaustive examination of the documentation has been done, a physical exam is also necessary. The following tips will provide insight into the how, what, and why this semi-truck accident occurred.
Physical Evaluation of a Semi-truck Accident
In order to evaluate the semi-truck accident properly, check the following steps:
- You should hire an investigator with experience in law enforcement and accident investigation at the earliest possible instance. Apart from the investigator, it is also essential to engage the services of an accident reconstructionist with trucking experience and a motor carrier regulation/safety expert.
- You can also engage the services of a road design expert and a human factors expert.
Semi-truck Accident Scene Investigation
You should conduct the investigation of the semi-truck accident scene in the following manner:
- You should arrange the investigation of the scene of the accident on the same day of the accident and in the same night, in case of a night accident.
- Investigator, reconstructionist, and a representative of the motor carrier should also visit the scene of the accident on the day of the accident.
- The investigator should take photographs from multiple perspectives including distant views. If possible, a fair and accurate videotape recording reproducing driver’s view from the same type of truck as involved in the accident should also be taken.
- Checking of police measurements is necessary.
- Examination of roadway/signage for potential roadway issues should be completed in order to anticipate potential government non-party at-fault defense. In the event of a state or government, a 180-day claim period and the one-year statute of limitations should be noted in cases where a government entity is implicated.
- The investigator should take possession of any remaining physical evidence.
Your Vehicle/Other Vehicles in a Semi-truck Accident
Evidence that needs to be collected from the victim’s vehicle and the other vehicles involved in the accident are as follows:
- Should secure your vehicle/other vehicles by purchasing or storing them if necessary.
- The investigators and accident reconstructionist should arrange for examination of the vehicle, including photographs and measurements.
- Should collect the repair and service history of the vehicle from the client.
- Should conduct an examination of the vehicle by consultants of other vehicles in an accident.
Investigation of Motor Carrier/ Driver/ Tractor/ Trailer
Looking into the driver and his or her company also will provide plenty of important information:
- Focus should be on determining whether the vehicle is a motor carrier or not.
- If the vehicle is a motor carrier, determination of whether it’s a common, contract, private, or exempt motor carrier should be made.
- Geographic areas of operation and weight of the vehicle are ascertained in the sense that if it’s an interstate vehicle, FMCS regulations along with state regulations apply, and in case of intrastate vehicle, only state regulations apply.
C. Preparing Your Case for Trial in a Semi-truck Accident
Now that all of this evidence has been collected, you and your attorney will have a good idea, depending how forthcoming the information available to you is, why and how the accident occurred, who the parties responsible for the accident are, and what injuries you and/or your loved ones have suffered. With information comes action and that next step is a lawsuit.
In order to obtain compensation, you must to show the driver or the company (or both) were negligent in some way and that negligence led to your injuries and damages. Negligence, outlined in greater detail elsewhere, is a cause of action for non-intentional acts that nevertheless result in injuries. The four required elements of a negligence claim that must be proven are:
- The existence of a duty of care on the part of the defendant.
- The defendant’s breach of that duty (failure to exercise care).
- Causation (that the failure led to an injury).
- Damages (that there was an actual injury from which you were suffering).
All motorists have a duty of care to others using the roads, be they bikers, other drivers, or pedestrians. Safety laws, such as traffic laws, can create, explicitly, a specific duty of care. As such, an accident caused by speeding is almost always going to be negligent per se. However, truckers have the heightened duties to obey the FMCSA regulations as well as those actions and precautions a reasonable truck driver would take when driving.
Proving Your Semi-truck Accident Lawsuit
The way to achieve redress for your injuries is to prove the driver, company, or both were negligent. The easiest way to do that is to show that the driver or company violated a law that’s been interpreted as a safety regulation by courts. Most traffic laws fall under this umbrella. Put another way, if the driver that hit you was cited by the police or highway patrol, you have proven negligence.
Otherwise, your trucking accident attorney will seek to show that the driver or company acted negligently by failing to use ordinary care and that that ordinary care led to property and physical injuries to you. The four elements of that claim are duty, breach, causation, and damages. Truck drivers have a duty to drive safely, and their companies have a duty to responsibly maintain their vehicles so as to prevent accidents.
The 4 Steps Needed in Your Semi-truck Accident Case
The first step is breach. Breach is provable a number of ways that vary from case to case. For example, if the driver fell asleep at the wheel, you may be able to show it by a rest schedule that doesn’t conform to the FMCSA requirements. The inspection of the vehicles may turn up negligently maintained engines or brakes. This element is the reason so much investigation, research, and discovery is required at the outset of your case. By proving this, you prove that both the commercial trucking driver and the company are at fault.
Once one or more breaches of duty have been found, your trucking accident attorney must argue before the jury that the breach was the cause of the accident. This is fairly easy in some cases and difficult in others. The causal link between a failure to maintain a proper rest schedule for drivers and a driver falling asleep at the wheel and causing an accident is clear. Whether slightly over-worn brake pads caused an accident may be more difficult to show. The final element, damages, is sadly generally fairly easy to show once the others have been established. The jury will consider the hospital bills, property costs, and pain and suffering.
To succeed at the above, your trucking accident attorney will need to perform a number of inquiries. The lifeblood of any legal case is information, and that holds especially true in the aftermath of a commercial trucking incident.
Just the Facts: Securing Evidence During Your Semi-truck Accident Lawsuit
You should expect your attorney to move quickly to secure the accident report from police, hire investigators and accident reconstructionists, and obtain any public information regarding the accident as well as witness statements. So too will the attorneys and insurance claim specialists be moving to secure any and all available information. You will be asked about the incident exhaustively, and the vehicle involved in the accident will be kept and examined.
Your attorney will investigate, and hire investigators, to review:
- the scene of the accident
- drivers involved
- the vehicles involved;
- official reports (police, etc.)
- the motor carrier company (and its insurers)
These investigations include photographing accident scenes and vehicles for reconstruction, vehicle history reports, depositions (essentially recorded legal interviews for evidence), background research on the carrier and driver, the make, model, and mileage of the truck, etc. While all of this can be time consuming, onerous, and costly, these are necessary steps to prevail in your case.
During your case, you can expect to find and discover further helpful information to your case. What makes a semi-truck accident case unique is the qualification of the drivers and their motor carrier employers. The following are the factual situations that you want to review and consider in your case.
Hours of Service: Did Fatigue Play a Role in Your Semi-truck Accident?
Hours of service in case of a motor carrier driver is important owing to the following reasons:
- One frequent cause of accidents is fatigue.
- Federal requirements for rest have changed as of 2013.
- Drivers cannot drive more than eight straight hours since their last break of 30 minutes or more.
- Any seven- to eight-day limit is restarted after 34 hours off.
- Provisions of restart requires two periods from 1 am to 5 am.
- Fatigue is a unique way to check the symptoms of alcohol consumption.
As a result, you can explore both sleep and fatigue in your semi-truck accident case.
Electronic Control Module: What Role Does It Play in Your Case?
Electronic control modules in semi-truck accident cases can provide important information as follows:
- All available files are available to download with the help of experts who can both download and interpret data.
- Should prepare the Spoliation argument, if necessary.
- Should establish the speed of the motor carrier prior to braking, at impact, and Delta-V.
- ECMs for commercial vehicles tend to have data for fastest speed, time at maximum speed, the number of hard braking incidents, and even clutch depression.
- Should check the GPS data separately as GPS may reflect where the driver has been and speed of the vehicle.
Electronic Data Recorder/GPS Tracking Device: Find the Black Box
Electronic Data Recorder (EDR) can be useful in a various way in a semi-truck accident:
- Vehicle information including speed and braking, seatbelt usage, airbag deployment, and change in velocity (Delta V) can be detected and stored in the EDR.
- Having an EDR is a must for all new passenger vehicles.
- Although American manufacturers are cooperative in accessing data, with Asian and European manufacturers, accessing data can be problematic.
- Spoliation letter should maintain a request for specific data.
- EDR is also useful in checking hours of service and speed.
- Even the client’s vehicle can have a similar EDR device with useful data. General Motors (GM) have been using black boxes in their vehicles since the 1990s. Consultation is important with an expert who has experience in downloading data.
- Black box data tends to be accurate and has high credibility to it.
Hence, this list gives you and idea of how much information is available in order to prove your case.
Imminent Hazard/Out of Service Orders: Was the Semi-truck Road Worthy?
Our federal government has been very proactive in increasing the regulation of over-the-road and long-haul trucking because of its high-degree hazards, such as a semi-truck accident. As a result, the number of imminent hazard orders that put the carriers out of service has doubled, and motor coach companies are increasingly scrutinized.
Negligent Hiring/Negligent Selection: Bad Driver, Bad Employer
A negligent hiring/negligent selection in a semi-truck accident can be useful to establish negligence of the trucking company and expand liability to brokers. However, finding broker liability is a tough proposition and can become very important when there is no or inadequate insurance.
Depositions of Critical Personnel in a Semi-truck Accident
For depositions of critical personnel, consider the following:
- The driver deposition.
- Understanding the dynamics of the trucking relationship and psychology of truckers.
- High turnover.
- Tension between company and drivers, especially former drivers.
- Health issues including sleeping disorders.
- Substance abuse, citation history, and arrest history.
- The safety director deposition.
- Hiring and qualification of driver.
- Safety director should have information about criminal history of the driver, if applicable, safety philosophy, policies, budget, document retention policies, training, and knowledge of applicable regulations, maintenance, and repair.
- The Rule 30(b)(6) deposition:
- Company’s understanding of how accident occurred.
Common Issues in Semi-truck Accident Cases
The predominant defenses to recovery for victims in semi-truck accident cases involve questions of liability by companies and insurers. The legal theory of respondeat superior holds employers liable for the wrongful acts of their employees. Companies will only be responsible for the conduct of their drivers when the driver qualifies as an employee or agent. Trucking companies often attempt to argue their drivers are merely independent contractors, and thus are the only party liable for their negligence.
Whether a driver qualifies as an employee or independent contractor is a matter of contract and actual control. Even if the driver’s contract says that he is an independent contractor, if the employer exercises enough control over him, it is liable under the respondeat superior doctrine. If the employer controls the way to complete the work, then it will be liable. However, if the company merely controls the result, but not the methods used to accomplish it, the independent contractor relationship will likely hold. For example, if the trucker uses and owns his own vehicle, supplies his own gas and insurance, and takes on the cost of repairs, has no tax withheld, and receives no benefits, he is likely an independent contractor.
If the employer confirms the relationship, the second step in the respondeat superior analysis is whether the driver was acting within the scope of that employment. Factors in determining scope of employment are dependent on the facts of each specific incident. Generally speaking, the nature, time, and place of the driver’s conduct that led to the injury are relevant. If he was engaging in an activity for which he got employment or was reasonably incidental to that work, he was busy within the scope of his employment duties.
Insurance Available in a Semi-truck Accident Claim
The FMCSA mandates the insurance policies that cover commercial trucks, and these policies are for much larger amounts than typical auto insurance. For these reasons, the trucking company’s insurance agency may be one of the staunchest opponents against your claim. Under the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, insurers of trucking agencies may offer an endorsement called an MCS-90 that acts as proof of financial liability.
“An MCS-90 endorsement to an automotive insurance policy obligates an insurer to cover an insured’s negligence involving vehicles subject to the financial responsibility requirements of … the Motor Carrier Act. The Motor Carrier Act, in turn, creates minimum levels of financial responsibility for the transportation of property by motor carrier … within the United States. Canal Ins. Co. v. Coleman, 625 F.3d 244.
This broad language means that, in most cases, the insurer will be liable. However, courts have held that some exceptions apply. For instance, the truck is present in the United States; (Canal Indem. Co. v. Galindo, 344 Fed.Appx. 909); it must have been transporting property (Canal Ins. Co. v. Coleman, 625 F.3d 244; Brunson ex rel. Brunson v. Canal Ins. Co., 602 F.Supp.2d 711); and the truck must have been a for-hire vehicle (Canal Ins. Co. v. YMV Transport, Inc., 867 F.Supp.2d 1099).
Whether the trucking company’s insurance represents a viable defendant will base on the facts of your accident. As a general rule, however, trucking company insurers will usually be required to pay for the negligence of drivers.
What Steps the Defense Will Be Taking to Your Case
Most of all, the commercial trucking industry is a multibillion-dollar industry. If you are involved in a trucking accident that was the reason of serious injuries, the trucking company will get a notification, and they are taking action from the moment that accident occurs. Here is a list of steps they will have taken shortly after the accident occurred.
- It is possible for 24/7 Transportation Defense teams to respond within minutes or hours of the accident. This will enable the defense counsel to access the accident site while the investigating officers are still present at the accident site and before removing the vehicle. Independent adjusters and experts are also on the team and on 24/7 call.
The key onsite defense tasks are as follows:
- Contact investigator should interview and gather information from witnesses at the scene while they have fresh recollection of the accident. The investigator should also work toward obtaining a copy of police report soon after it is finished.
- They should contact an accident/reconstructionist to take photographs/measurements before removing vehicles and before road markings and debris disappear.
- The driver should secure and reassure a relationship of trust with him.
- Driver’s logbook and key evidence such as camera, cell phone, and snack receipts on or within the commercial vehicle should be secures.
- They should complete drug/alcohol testing within an appropriate time frame.
Experts in the areas of biomechanics/human factors, conspicuity, metallurgy (underride cases), and policies and procedures on hiring, training, disciplining, and general safety practices will obtain from the trucking company:
- Important evidence they will preserve.
- Vehicle and equipment of the client.
- Other vehicles, equipment, and physical evidence from the accident.
- ECM data.
- Transportation company documents/records.
The trucking industry is well aware that their commercial drivers work in a very stressful occupation that is highly monitored by FMCSA, Qualcomm, GPS, ECM, video camera, background checks, medical and drug tests, to name a few. Bus drivers have to constantly maneuver past obstacles such as pedestrians, bicycles, and vehicles while trying to safely transport their customers. OTR truck drivers have to cope with spending a long time away from their family together with pressure to deliver loads on time while being aware of the fact that such delivery is very safe. However, they will take every step to defend their actions and reputation in any suit brought against them. Preparation is key for your case.
What Steps to Take Next in Your Semi-truck Accident Case
Trucking accident court cases can be long, complex, confusing affairs that are mentally and physically draining both for the victim, defendant, and even the semi-truck accident lawyer. The case may revolve on complicated facts regarding the regulation of certain parts, weights, sleep schedules, or insurance contracts. Navigating such a case can be difficult at best. And a better understanding of the process involved will hopefully assist you in evaluating your claim and asking the right questions of your semi-truck accident lawyer.