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Driver and Company Liability for Commercial Truck Accidents

From delivery vehicles to 18-wheelers, collisions with trucks can prove devastating to the occupants of an automobile. Even if the automobile’s driver bears little or no responsibility for the event, assigning liability in the aftermath may prove arduous. If you must face the challenge of recovering from an accident with a commercial truck, understanding liability issues will help you obtain just compensation.

Liability: The Potential Parties

Keeping a commercial truck on the road requires numerous individuals and business entities. When a collision occurs, any of these parties may play a role and bear some liability for injuries.

The Truck Driver

With an injury-causing accident, a truck driver’s actions always merit close attention. As a starting point, investigators will look for basic safety violations:

  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or other controlled substances
  • Violating federal, state or municipal rules of the road
  • Driving when drowsy
  • Violating employer safety rules

A driver may bear liability without gross negligence. Driver error, often due to unfamiliarity with a route, remains a common cause of accidents.

Truck drivers must also adhere to intricate workday regulations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. These rules spell out the number of consecutive hours a driver may work in 24 hours and mandate rest periods between shifts. Further, the rules limit drivers to 60 hours behind the wheel for any consecutive seven days, followed by at least 34 hours of downtime before resuming work.

The Truck’s Owner

With an owner-operator, the truck owner and driver are the same entity. In other cases, a trucking company may lease some vehicles instead of owning the trucks outright. With a leased truck, the leasing company typically assumes much of the responsibility for maintenance. To firmly pin down the liability of this issue, a personal injury attorney would need to carefully examine the terms of the lease.

The Trucking Company

A trucking company bears responsibility for hiring qualified drivers and providing them with adequate training. Once hired, the company must monitor compliance with FMCSA and state regulations. A trucking company’s obligations extend beyond adhering to the letter of the law. For example, an intercity delivery company must factor in prevailing traffic congestion or inclement weather conditions when scheduling driver shifts. Pressuring drivers to meet unsafe schedules may leave a company vulnerable to legal action. Among freight truck accidents, mishaps involving delivery vehicles have shown the greatest increase in recent years.

The Truck’s Component Manufacturers

If a collision’s cause is a mechanical failure under normal use, a manufacturer may bear liability. The responsible party may be the truck manufacturer itself or one of its many component suppliers. The most common mechanical failures in truck accidents involve tires. If a properly maintained tire fails under normal use, the tire manufacturer may face a lawsuit. No matter the type of mechanical failure, working through this chain of responsibility demands significant investigative resources.

A Third-Party Maintenance Firm

While many trucking companies have in-house maintenance staff, nearly all truck owners farm out at least some duties to another company. If negligence in contracted maintenance duties contributes to an accident, these entities may face legal action.

The Cargo Loader

Federal regulations spell out procedures for the safe weight distribution of trailers. If a third party took on the loading task and violated these regulations, this entity may bear some liability for an accident.

Types of Evidence: Liability Building Blocks

Sorting out liability issues in a truck accident requires evidence. If you pursue a lawsuit to receive fair compensation for injuries, your attorney will seek several types of evidence on your behalf.

Law Enforcement Sobriety Tests

With an injury-causing truck accident, law enforcement may ask the truck driver to submit to standard roadside coordination tests or a breathalyzer exam. Some states may also require a blood test at a law enforcement station. Any evidence of substance abuse is available to your attorney if you file a lawsuit.

Electronic Logging Devices

Since December 2019, federal law has required nearly every commercial truck to carry an electronic logging device. ELDs connect to the truck’s engine control module and can record detailed data on a truck’s operation. These devices provide irrefutable proof of compliance — or non-compliance — with FMCSA hours-of-service regulations. Nonetheless, ELDs are more than a replacement for paper records — including the infamous cheat sheets.

ELD recordings include detailed shifting, acceleration and braking data. These data points allow trucking companies to coach drivers on safe and fuel-efficient driving techniques. The data has one other virtue: It reveals drowsy driving. A truck driver’s obligations include alertness for the entirety of a shift. ELD data can reveal diminished reaction time with drivers who fail to obtain adequate rest between shifts. By federal law, truck owners must retain ELD data for at least six months. Unplugging the ELD is also a violation of federal law.

Truck-Mounted Cameras

While neither the federal government nor any state requires commercial trucks to carry dashcams, an increasing number of trucking companies now equip their vehicles with these devices. Dashcams can range from single front-pointing units to multi-camera systems that cover the truck’s sides and even the driver. A handful of companies equip their trailers with rear-pointing cameras to provide blind spot coverage for drivers; if an accident involves a read-end collision, the video from these cameras may serve as evidence.

On-Scene Photographs

Photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of an accident can provide compelling evidence. If not precluded by injury or roadside safety concerns, smartphone photos taken by an occupant of an involved are a wise move. Photographs taken by law enforcement officers are also available to your attorney.

Surveillance Cameras

Many states maintain internet-linked 24-hour surveillance cameras to help travelers view driving conditions on high-traffic roads. While these cameras often have low resolution and frame rates, the video may still make a helpful contribution to your case. With truck accidents in city environments, the security cameras of nearby businesses may provide video evidence. Businesses may not preserve security cam recordings beyond 30 days, so prompt action by an attorney can prove vital.

Evidence Preservation: The Value of an Attorney

While abundant evidence may exist in the aftermath of a truck-related accident, keeping this data from disappearing is a critical task for victims who seek fair compensation. An attorney can prevent a party from erasing evidence with a legal document known as a spoliation letter. When presented with a spoliation letter, any party with evidence of the accident must retain these records until all legal issues meet resolution. Timing is critical in this endeavor, and this harsh fact is why persons injured in a truck accident should seek a prompt consultation with a personal injury attorney.

Fielding Law: Big Firm Resources and Small Firm Care

At Fielding Law, we focus on personal injury cases. While we bring to bear the resources of a large firm, you will receive the kind of personal attention typically found with small law offices. If we accept your case, you will deal directly with an attorney, not an assistant. You will pay no fee unless we recover money for you. If you or a family member have suffered an injury due to another party’s negligence, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.