When is a Trucking Company Liable for an Accident?
Posted on: February 13, 2021
Any type of vehicle accident is serious, but truck accidents can be especially concerning. First, the sheer size and weight of trucks can make even the most minor accident more dangerous. Second, establishing liability in a truck accident can be challenging. In an accident involving a commercial truck, many entities could ultimately be at fault, including the following parties:
- Truck driver
- Truck or trailer owner
- Person or company that leased the truck or trailer from the owner
- Truck manufacturer or the manufacturer of tires or other parts that could have contributed to an accident
- Shipping company or cargo loader
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association (FMCSA), more than 5,000 large trucks and buses were involved in fatal crashes in 2018. That same year, 121,000 large trucks and buses were involved in accidents that injured more than 176,000 people.
These numbers are significant and alarming. Anyone involved in an accident with a commercial truck should immediately contact an experienced truck accident lawyer. An experienced lawyer understands the complexities of cases involving trucks and can determine negligence using their specialized knowledge of the trucking industry.
What are Common Causes of Truck Accidents?
A truck operates differently from a passenger vehicle, and truck drivers see the road and other drivers differently. Add that to the heavy or dangerous loads trucks often carry, and it is easy to see the potential for accidents. Common causes for an accident involving trucks include the following:
Distracted driving. Taking the focus off the road for even a second can cause a serious accident, and truck drivers are not immune to distractions. Talking or texting on a cell phone, watching videos, talking on a CB radio, and other activities can cause distracted driving.
Driver fatigue. Even though federal regulations clearly state that a driver cannot drive more than 11 consecutive hours and must take breaks, a trucker may push themselves. Sometimes this is because trucking companies compensate them for faster deliveries or expect them to make deliveries ahead of time no matter the circumstances.
Cargo problems. Improperly loaded cargo or overloaded cargo both contribute to trucking accidents. Regulations limit the weight and volume a truck can carry, and weigh stations check that trucks are within guidelines. Still, cargo can shift or not be properly loaded to begin with, leading to steering and control problems and accidents.
Driver recklessness. Just as with passenger car drivers, truck drivers can be guilty of a variety of moving violations. The most common one is speed, which puts both the driver and other vehicles in danger. Other reckless driving includes not using headlights or turn signals properly; changing lanes too frequently and quickly; and slamming on brakes, leading to jackknifing.
Weather. Changing weather conditions can cause any driver to lose control if they do not adjust their driving for the weather. Rain, sleet, snow, and ice can quickly make roadways dangerous. Fog can limit visibility. Trucks, with their weight, are especially prone to slipping and sliding in adverse weather.
Improper truck maintenance. Some trucking companies do not regularly maintain or check their trucks for safe and trouble-free operation. This lack of maintenance, or delayed maintenance, can cause brake, steering, or engine failures, leading to serious accidents.
Road conditions. Construction, closed lanes, and other roadblocks can also cause accidents if the truck driver does not or cannot respond in time. Even potholes can cause a truck to veer or roll over.
Lack of training and experience. Driving a truck takes special skills and years of experience. Although a driver must hold a special commercial driver’s license (CDL) to operate a commercial truck, some may not have this license. Others may not be familiar with regulations or routes or have enough experience to drive by themselves. Inexperience can lead to accidents.
Who can be Held Liable in a Trucking Accident?
As noted above, one of the reasons accidents involving trucks are complex is because multiple parties may be liable, including the following:
Truck driver. Sometimes, the truck driver is the only person who is liable for an accident. This is often the case when a truck accident lawyer can prove that the driver was:
- Under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Driving recklessly
- Driving over the lawful number of hours or days
- Inexperienced or improperly licensed
- Suffering from a medical or health issue
- Improperly driving for the weather or road conditions
Trucking company. The trucking company that hires a trucker can also be found negligent and liable. Trucking company liability can be challenging to prove, so hiring an experienced truck accident lawyer is an excellent first step.
Negligence. A lawyer can uncover negligence, including incomplete or missing truck inspections, delayed maintenance, cutting corners on safety, unlawful or unreasonable expectations of deadlines and driver operations, knowingly operating an unsafe vehicle, and hiring inexperienced or unlicensed drivers.
Truck owner. A trucking company or driver may lease a truck from an owner. This could expose the truck owner for liability in an accident, including faulty, delayed, or missing inspections and failure to maintain or repair engines, brakes, steering, fluid systems, tires, and electronics.
Shipper or cargo loader. Federal guidelines and state laws govern the trucking industry, including cargo loading, weight, and volume. Improperly secured or loaded cargo can cause a driver to lose control of the truck if the cargo shifts. In other instances, the load can fall off the truck, injuring or killing other drivers and damaging property. Overloaded trucks, also, can cause operational difficulties leading to accidents.
Truck or part manufacturers. Sometimes the company that made or assembled the truck or truck parts can be liable in an accident. For example, a tire manufacturer could be negligent if a truck’s tire blows out and causes an accident. In other cases, a part or the truck’s assembly is known to have defects but is not recalled.
How Do Trucking Companies Defend Themselves in Accidents?
Trucking companies are proficient at defending themselves in accident litigation. In the past, they would purposely create distance between themselves and the driver, the vehicle, and the cargo. Their tactics included leasing or renting the tractor, trailer, and other equipment from the owner-operator and hiring drivers as independent contractors, not employees.
Federal law has invalidated both of these arguments, but trucking companies still try to use them in court. Current law states that trucking companies must assume complete responsibility for the possession, control, operation, and use of the trucking equipment for the lease duration.
A trucking company might also try to argue that a truck driver was not acting in the scope of their employment when the accident occurred. State laws vary on this issue, but generally, the court will look at these factors when determining the scope of employment:
- Driver intent
- Time, place, and nature of driver conduct
- Work for which the driver was hired
- Level of autonomy the driver has in performing duties
- Incidental acts employers should reasonably expect drivers to perform
A court could determine that the driver was acting as an employee and within the employment scope at the time of the accident, thereby holding the company liable.
Freehold Truck Accident Lawyers at Ellis Law Fight for Victims of Truck Accidents
Truck accidents can be devastating in terms of injury, fatality, and property damage. They are also complicated because so many parties are involved, from the driver to the manufacturer. The Freehold truck accident lawyers at Ellis Law have the experience needed to identify the liable party in a truck accident and recover the compensation you might be entitled to receive. Typical compensation includes coverage for medical bills, current and long term; property loss or damage; and even pain and suffering. Call us at 732-308-0200 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Freehold, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn and New York, New York.