If you have been injured or a loved one has been killed in a traffic accident involving a large truck, such as an 18-wheeler, a semi-truck, or a tractor-trailer, you are not alone. Every year accidents involving large trucks kill about 5,000 people and injure some 115,000 persons. Because of the vast weight difference between a large truck (especially one that is fully loaded and has a full tank of gas) and the general passenger automobile, SUV, minivan, or pickup truck, the passengers of the smaller vehicle may suffer serious injuries, including death, even though the impact was relatively slight.
BACKGROUND: WHY TRUCKS ARE DANGEROUS
Eighteen wheelers. Semi-trailer trucks. Tractor trailers. Big rigs.
Different regions of the United States have different terms for these conveyances, but they are the same everywhere: a big cab (or “tractor”) pulling behind it a trailer (or “semi trailer,” so named because it only has wheels at the back), used most often for transport of goods.
If you have spent any time on American roadways, you have likely seen many semi trucks. And if you have ever been involved in a collision with one, you know just how powerful they really are.
Getting in an accident with another car is bad enough. But an accident with a semi truck is often far, far worse.
The reason why is obvious: semi trucks are much bigger than most other types of vehicles. In fact, they may weigh 20 to 30 times as much as the ordinary car.
Because of the vast difference in size between a passenger car and a semi truck, especially one which is fully loaded, even a minor collision between a car and a truck can lead to death or serious injury for the occupants of the car, along with extreme damage to the car itself.
There are a few other safety concerns which are unique to semi trucks:
- Semi trucks have much larger blind spots than ordinary cars. These blind spots are known as “no zones,” and they are located around the sides and rear of the truck. To a truck driver, large portions of the road are completely invisible.
- Semi trucks have longer acceleration and stopping distances than ordinary cars. Stopping distances make it easier for semi trucks to get into rear-end accidents with the vehicles in front of them. Acceleration distances are not quite as dangerous, but they can pose serious problems with a truck is trying to merge with traffic.
- Many trucks are carrying hazardous material. This hazardous material can take many different forms, including explosive materials such as gasoline, corrosive agents, and even nuclear waste. In a collision, the presence of hazardous material can cause serious injuries and may also harm the larger environment.
The final reason why semi trucks are so dangerous, however, is not because of the trucks themselves but because of their drivers.
Semi truck drivers are often overworked. Driving a truck is a very difficult job, and many truckers are on the road for hours on end with little sleep.
Of course, the federal government has passed regulations limiting how long a trucker can drive without rest. However, some truckers and trucking companies are not exactly scrupulous about following the rules, and in recent years the rules have been loosened somewhat to allow truckers to drive longer hours with less rest.
This may be a good thing for truck drivers’ paychecks (and those of their employers), but not so much for other drivers on the road! Requiring truckers to work longer hours indisputably increases risk, and sure enough, rates of truck accidents went up after regulations were loosened.
Truck accidents are such a big problem, in fact, that Reza has devoted an entire chapter to them in his book Accidents Happen: A Consumer’s Guide to the Personal Injury and Wrongful Death System. If you are a resident of California you may order a free copy of his book; we discuss many of the same accidents that we discuss here, but in greater depth.
Trucking Accidents By the Numbers
Trucking, in many ways, is the backbone of the modern American economy. There’s a reason why you see so many trucks on our roads: without them, products could not be as easily shipped across the United States with as little cost to the consumer as they currently are.
In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that we all owe our current standard of living to trucking. And some people owe their livelihoods to trucking in an even more direct sense: there are nearly 9 million people who are employed in the American trucking industry as a whole, including 3.5 million truck drivers.
There are over 15 million trucks in the United States, including 2 million semi trucks. Other types of trucks include tow trucks, garbage trucks, and box trucks; in this article, we will be focusing primarily on semi trucks, but if you have been in a collision with another type of truck, you still have every right to seek damages.
How many truck accidents occur in the United States each year? According to numbers compiled by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, there were over 400,000 collisions reported involving large trucks in 2015. (“Large trucks” is a category which includes semi trucks, although it can also include other types of trucks that weigh over 10,000 pounds.)
Of these crashes, 83,000 led to injuries and around 3,600 led to deaths. This is worth repeating for emphasis: more than three thousand people are killed by large trucks in America every single year.
For comparison, imagine a 9/11 or Pearl Harbor occurring on our nation’s roads every year; that’s about how deadly large trucks are. And even if you are fortunate enough to survive, the injuries caused by trucking accidents can be devastating.
Causes Behind Truck-Auto Accidents:
- The truck is traveling too fast for the conditions;
- The truck is following the vehicle in front of it too closely, resulting in a rear-end collision when the vehicle in front is required to come to an abrupt stop because of road conditions or the actions of another driver in front of it;
- The truck’s brakes are old and worn or otherwise faulty and incapable of stopping the truck in time to avoid a collision;
- Fatigue of the truck driver who does not take the required rest periods and doctors his or her log book to make it appear that he or she was in compliance with federal and state laws;
- Drug use, especially drugs to keep the driver awake;
- Driver inattentiveness or distraction;
- Failing to yield the right of way before entering a roadway or making a turn;
- The driver’s loss of control of the truck due to such things as a shifting load or inclement weather conditions such as rain, snow, or high winds;
- Poor maintenance of the truck so it is not in a roadworthy condition;
- Making an illegal maneuver;
- The driver’s falling asleep at the wheel;
- The truck driver not paying sufficient attention to the road in front of him or her, causing the truck to drift into an adjacent lane, with the driver then overcompensating to get back into the lane he or she was driving in, resulting in the truck’s jackknifing and causing a major collision and traffic jam.
WHO REGULATES TRUCKS?
Most traffic law is handled by the state governments. Trucks, however, are a different matter; they are considered so important that the federal government plays a role in regulating trucking.
On the federal level, trucking is regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is part of the federal Department of Transportation. This agency enforces various federal regulations regarding truckers, including quality control, weight limitations, and mandated rest time.
The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Administration also enforces the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986, which outlines the standards for obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL). All truck drivers must obtain a CDL, and they are harder to get than ordinary licenses.
The federal regulations concerning trucking can be found in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations. However, the federal government does not have exclusive purview over trucking. There are also many state regulations concerning semi trucks, and determining fault for a truck accident will often involve consideration of both state and federal laws.
WHO CAN BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR A TRUCKING ACCIDENT?
In a truck accident, you typically have the option of filing a lawsuit against several different parties at once. In this sense, truck accidents are somewhat more complex than car accidents, in which you will typically (although not always) file a claim only against the other driver’s insurance.
This can be done because trucking typically involves more parties than driving does, so there are often several parties who may share varying degrees of responsibility for a trucking accident. Any, or all, of these parties can be sued, and a good lawyer will try to expand the scope of the lawsuit as much as possible, and include as many potential defendants as they legally can.
By expanding the scope of the lawsuit, a plaintiff in a truck accident case can increase the number of damages which they are eligible to recover. One caution, however: even if you can maximize your compensation, you will never be allowed to “double up,” or recover more compensation than the total amount of your damages.
Parties which may be held responsible for a trucking accident include the truck driver, the truck owner, the team responsible for maintaining the truck or loading its cargo, the designer of the roads on which the accident occurred, the manufacturer of the the truck itself or any of its parts, or the truck’s lessee, if it was leased to someone not its original owner.
Of course, each case is different. Your lawsuit may not include all or even most of these parties, but it will likely include at least one and perhaps more.
HOW MUCH CAN I RECOVER IN A TRUCK ACCIDENT CASE?
Truck accidents are horrific, but there is one silver lining to all this: if you have been involved in a collision with a truck, you will likely be eligible to recover significant damages.
There are a couple reasons for this. The first reason is that, as we just mentioned, multiple parties can be sued in a trucking accident. The second reason is that, because truck accidents are so costly, truck drivers are required to have higher insurance policy limits than ordinary drivers.
This means that, if you get in an accident with a truck driver, you are more protected than you would be if you got in an accident with an ordinary passenger car driver. You can file a claim to the full extent of the truck driver’s policy limits, which are less likely to be exhausted and leave you without a means of recovering compensation.
As a result of this, truck accidents have the potential to result in very large personal injury judgments and settlements. If you have been in a truck accident, this makes hiring the right lawyer more important than ever, because so much is at stake.
You can get a lot, if not all, of what you deserve… but only if you have proper legal representation. The last thing you want is to squander a promising truck accident case and end up broke and unable to afford your medical bills!
Employees and Independent Contractors
One important issue that we should mention here is the distinction between employees and independent contractors.
Some truck drivers are direct employees of the companies for whom they are moving cargo. Other truck drivers are independent agents who agree to work for a company for a limited period of time. This latter group of truck drivers are legally considered to be independent contractors.
Generally, the law makes employers more responsible for the actions of their employees than it does for the actions of their independent contractors. If you were in a collision with a truck driver who was an employee of a company, then their employer may be found responsible through the legal doctrine of “vicarious liability,” even if there was no direct liability.
However, if you were in a collision with a truck driver who was an independent contractor, then it may be harder for you to get damages from the company, unless you can prove that it played a direct role in bringing about the accident. This is a complex legal situation, and we can’t go into more detail without knowing the details of your case.
DETERMINING FAULT AFTER AN ACCIDENT
So far, we have assumed that the truck driver was the one at fault. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, drivers of ordinary vehicles can be at fault in a collision with a truck.
Don’t assume that just because you were involved in a collision with a truck, you’re off the hook! As a road user, you still have a duty to drive carefully and avoid collisions with other vehicles, including trucks.
If you breach this duty, you shouldn’t expect any damages. In fact, you might even be on the hook for any damage you may have done to the truck or its driver.
What if both parties were at fault? In some cases, a truck driver was partly or mostly responsible for an accident, but the other driver still acted in a way which contributed to the accident. If you were the other driver in this scenario, you will still be able to collect damages, but they will be diminished according to the rules of comparative negligence.
For instance, if you are in an accident where the trucker bore 80% of the legal responsibility, but you were also responsible for 20% of the reason why the accident happened, then you will only be able to recover 80% of the damages to which you would have otherwise been entitled.
The precise standards of comparative and contributory negligence vary from state to state, so check to see what the standard is for your jurisdiction!
HOW TO WIN A TRUCK ACCIDENT LAWSUIT
In most truck accident lawsuits, the plaintiff must prove negligence. A lawsuit based on negligence has four elements: duty, breach of duty, harm, and causation.
In other words, you must prove that the defendants had a certain duty to you (such as a duty to drive safety or keep the truck in good working condition), that they failed to uphold this duty, that you suffered a certain harm (such as injuries or damage to your car), and that this harm was directly caused by the breach of duty.
In many cases, the trucker merely breaking the law is enough to prove negligence; this is known as negligence per se. If a trucker runs a red light and hits you, for instance, it is enough to prove that the red light violation occurred to demonstrate that the trucker was negligent.
If you’ve been reading some of our other articles, you’re likely already familiar with negligence and the four elements needed to prove it; they’re pretty much the same throughout most types of accident lawsuits.
In a few cases, a truck accident lawsuit may be prosecuted under strict liability, which means that it is not necessary to show negligence on the part of the defendant; you must merely prove that you had an accident and it can be traced back to the defendant’s actions. This standard can only be used in a few situations, typically involving defective consumer products.
Types of Damages
As with other types of accidents, there are a few different types of damages that you are allowed to collect in a truck accident lawsuit.
The three different types of damages are:
- Economic damages, which include losses that can be strictly quantified, such as medical bills, damaged property, and lost wages;
- Noneconomic damages, which include less easily quantifiable costs, such as pain and suffering; and
- Punitive damages, which are sometimes awarded by a jury for no other purpose than to punish an especially egregious offender.
Of course, the types of damages which you are eligible to collect will vary significantly based on the precise nature of your case and the quality of legal representation which you have.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE IN A TRUCK ACCIDENT
If you find yourself in a truck accident, you should take many of the same steps which you would take in any ordinary motor vehicle accident.
First, make sure that you and and the other people involved in the accident are safe. Call 911 if you see any injuries, and do not attempt to move any injured people (unless necessary to get them out of the road). If your car is still working, then try to get over to the side of the road and out of the way of traffic.
Next, you should exchange insurance information with the truck driver. Don’t leave the scene, or else you might be accused of hit-and-run! Unfortunately, some truck drivers do flee the scene; if this happens, then try to get as thorough a description of the truck as possible, and also see if you can subpoena any nearby security cameras.
Get the trucker’s name, contact information, and insurance, as well as the company for whom they were driving at the time of the accident… and give them your own information on all these counts. But aside from this, don’t say much else. Don’t lose your temper, even if you are justifiably angry, and don’t apologize for the accident! This can be taken as an admission of guilt.
You should always call the police after a truck accident. The police will likely write up an accident report after responding to the crash. The police report will include a determination of fault which may differ from that of the insurance adjusters, and police reports can be very helpful to your case. Torklaw can help you you order a free copy of your police report.
If you are in any condition to do so, then begin collecting evidence at the scene of the accident. Take pictures of the crash, including pictures of both your vehicle and the truck, as well as any relevant pictures of your surroundings, and get the names and contact info of any witnesses to the crash. They might be able to testify for your and help your case later.
In addition, you should keep accurate medical records of all your injuries, including how they interfere with your daily life and the activities which they force you to miss out on. In fact, you should also keep a daily journal of all the ways in which your injuries interfere with you living your activities. This is important for your ability to recover the maximum amount of damages (including both economic and noneconomic damages) later.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do not talk to the trucker’s insurance company! You might think that, after being hit by a truck, the least people could do is give you the benefit of the doubt, but that isn’t the case. Truck companies, like any other insurance companies, want you to give them an opportunity to deny your claim, and they will try a lot of sneaky tactics to get you to do that.
No matter how savvy you are, you are no match for these huge trucking companies and insurance companies which have decades of experience at getting victims of car accidents to say damning things that ruin their cases.
So don’t talk to the trucking companies or the insurance companies. Don’t talk to them on the phone, in person, or by email, don’t agree to any recorded statements or accept any settlements, no matter how reasonable they may seem on the surface. Don’t even trust your own insurance company! You have nothing to gain, and everything to lose.
Always, always deal with these big entities through your lawyer or with a lawyer present. That’s our job: to protect you and make your case as strong as it can possibly be.
If you’ve just been in a truck accident, you’re probably scared and shaken up. This is perfectly natural. Truck accidents are a big deal!
Fortunately, with the right legal representation, the frightening world of truck accident law is perfectly manageable. By handing your case over to an experienced attorney, you can ensure that you receive the maximum amount of damages to which you are entitled.
If you allow a lawyer to take your case, this will also take a huge weight off your shoulders at the time when you probably need it most, and let you focus full-time on healing from your injuries.
Torklaw is a team of skilled accident lawyers with extensive experience in handling truck accident cases. We know truck accident law inside and out, and we are not shy about demanding the most for our clients. Even if you don’t end up hiring one of us, we’ll be happy to speak with you about your case and offer whatever help we can.
Call TORKLAW Truck Accident Lawyers today for a FREE consultation!