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Big Rig Wrecks: Commercial Truck Accidents

Accidents involving 18-wheelers and other big rigs can differ from the run-of-the-mill motor vehicle accidents.  If you are involved in an accident involving an 18-wheeler or other commercial truck, it is important to understand some of the difference between them and an accident with a personal-use vehicle, from more severe impact resulting from heavy trucks, to more insurance coverage available, to special rules that apply to trucking companies like the federal motor carrier safety regulations.  Some of the special rules that apply to 18-wheelers involve driver background checks, drug testing, driver logs, and hours of service, all of which can impact the outcome of a case.

An accident involving a commercial truck can be much more disastrous than an accident between personal use vehicles.  A typical fully-loaded commercial truck, like an 18-wheeler or dump truck, can weigh 25 times as much as a typical car.  Due to this weight disparity, most accidents involving 18-wheelers and other vehicles can result in more serious (or even fatal) injuries.  For these reasons, semi-truck operators must follow a number of federal and state regulations and are required to carry insurance with higher limits than standard personal use vehicle drivers.

Commercial truck drivers are regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation and they have a higher standard of duty and care than non-commercial drivers, because of the excessive danger involved with their accidents.  Some of the regulations include, how much weight a big rig can haul, how long a driver can go without rest, and quality standards, which regulate the manufacturing and repair of commercial trucks.  These are just a small fraction of the kinds of conduct regulated in the trucking business.    With so many regulations, there is a chance that in an accident with a commercial truck, either the driver or trucking company violated one or more of the relevant laws or regulations.  This is important because proof of violation of a statute or other regulation greatly increases the chance of showing the commercial truck driver or company was at fault in the accident.  The more someone is able to show the other party was at fault the more likely they are to prevail on their claim, and the bigger amount of damages they are likely to receive.

Although 18-wheeler trucks, tractor semi-trailer vehicles, and other commercial trucks accounted for only 3-4% of all traffic on the roads in Louisiana, they are involved in about 9% of the total fatalities resulting from auto accidents.  For these reasons, it is important to understand what constitutes a commercial truck accident and how the different rules and regulations can affect the outcome of an accident case involving a commercial truck or vehicle.

WHAT IS A COMMERCIAL TRUCK?

Accidents involving commercial trucks account for some of the most dangerous and deadly accidents in the country.  As mentioned above, the outcome of a case can vary greatly if it involved a commercial truck as compared to a personal vehicle.  The first thing to know when figuring out if you have been in an accident with a commercial truck, is obviously to know what a “commercial truck” is.  Although it may be obvious in many cases when one has been involved in an accident with a commercial truck, this is not always the case.  Either way it is important to understand what constitutes a commercial truck.

Generally, a commercial vehicle is any kind of vehicle that is used for a business or commercial purpose.   A commercial vehicle could be a big truck (semis, tractor trailers), a commercial bus, a van, or any other type of automobile used for commercial purposes.  For the purpose of this chapter and the extra regulations, which commercial vehicles are subject to, the main type of vehicles to consider are big commercial trucks, such as 18-wheelers, or other tractor-trailers.  It is important to know, however, that all type of commercial vehicles could be subject to additional regulations and insurance requirements.  Technically, any vehicle that is used to carry freight or other commercial goods or used for a business activity is a commercial vehicle, which may be subject to such regulations.

Some common types of commercial vehicles to remember are:

  • Semi Trucks
  • Tractor Trailers
  • Delivery Vehicles
  • Commercial Buses
  • Hazmat Carriers
  • Tanker Trailers
  • Commercial Vans

As stated before, although there are many types of commercial vehicles and trucks, which can each have their own types of regulations and standards, the vehicles listed above are some of the main types of larger commercial transport vehicles to remember, because they are the ones most highly regulated by Federal Department of Transportation.  Specifically to fit those regulations, the vehicle must be one that is used as part of a business and involved in interstate commerce and fits and of the below descriptions:

Weighs over 10,000 pounds

  • Has a gross vehicle weight rating weight rating of over 10,000 pounds
  • Is designed or used to transport 16 or more passengers not for compensation
  • Is designed or used to transport 9 or more passengers for compensation
  • Is transporting hazardous materials in a quantity requiring placards

Big trucks typically weigh anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 pounds and can be as long as 60-70 feet.  If the auto accident in question involved a vehicle that fit one of these descriptions, it is likely subject to more stringent federal commercial trucking law and regulations.

COMMERCIAL TRUCKING DAMAGES

If someone is injured in an auto accident, they are entitled to receive money from the person at fault in the form of damages.  There are many different types of damages for which one can recover money.  Because accidents involving commercial trucks can often be more severe, the law also allows for a greater potential for recovery.   A commercial 18-wheeler may weigh up to 80,000 lbs. with a full load, as opposed to personal car or truck, which may weigh closer to 3,000 to 4,000 pounds.  When a large commercial truck has an accident with a regular car or truck, it may result in more severe injury or death.  Because of the sheer mass of a commercial truck, as opposed to a personal vehicle, accidents involving them often result in much greater damages, for which an injured party may be able to recover.

COMMERICAL TRUCKING INSURANCE REQUIRMENTS

Just like all other drivers on the road, commercial truck drivers are required to carry a certain amount of minimum insurance coverage.  The difference though, is that state and federal regulations mandate higher insurance requirements on owners and drivers of large commercial trucks, as compared to regular personal use vehicles, due to the severity of accidents that large commercial trucks are involved in.   This is good for the injured party because it increases their chances of being able to recover their full amount of damages.  

Individuals can be, and often are, uninsured or underinsured.  In fact, 52% of drivers in Louisiana have at or below the state required minimum coverage for auto insurance.  The amount of auto insurance the state legally requires a driver to carry is often not enough to cover all of the costs associated with an auto accident.  When an individual has either no or not enough auto insurance to cover the costs related to their auto accident, they are required to cover the additional cost out of their own pocket.  This means if you are in an auto accident with someone who is uninsured or underinsured, and they have no money of their own, it can be difficult to ever receive the money you are owed.  Even if you obtain a legally binding judgment against another person for the cost of your auto accident, you may never actually receive that money if they have no means to pay.  It is for this reason that, for all practical purposes, cases will only be able to settle for an amount that is the maximum amount allowed by the defendant’s insurance.

Since commercial truck drivers, on the other hand, are required to carry higher levels of insurance than the average driver, it can be better for someone injured in one of those accidents to recover.  The higher minimum policy requirements for commercial truckers means that even if the driver or employer only carries the minimum amount, the plaintiff is less likely to be stuck with a small settlement, or one that does not truly encompass the full cost of their damages.  Even though, on average, there are more damages caused by commercial trucking accidents, there is also proportionally much more insurance coverage held by those commercial truckers.   These insurance requirements are in place to protect those injured in truck accidents from truckers that cannot afford to pay damages to truck accident victims from their own pockets.

COMMERCIAL TRUCKING REGULATIONS

Determining who is at fault in an accident is the key element of any auto accident case.  The party at fault is the party that will be responsible for payment of damages to the opposing party.  Commercial truck drivers and commercial trucking companies are subject to a wide variety laws, rules, and regulations that do not apply to non-commercial drivers, and determining who was at fault for the accident may hinge on a violation of one of those regulations.  If the commercial driver or their company did not follow the appropriate regulations, the driver and his or her company could be responsible for the damages resulting from the accident.  

In order to increase the safety of trucks, to reduce the number of truck accidents, and to protect people from being involved in truck accident, many trucking regulation laws exist.  All trucks and truck drivers must carry commercial driver licenses, and adhere to the rules for the amount of rest a driver must have.  They are also required to comply with maximum weight limits, standards for manufacturing, and repair of trucks, and guidelines for the transportation of hazardous materials, as well as many other guidelines.

Driver fatigue is the number one cause for truck accidents due to the error of the truck driver.   Therefore, laws regarding the maximum number of hours that a truck driver can drive his truck, have been established by the federal government, to reduce truck driver fatigue and in turn lower the number of truck accidents. Many trucker drivers ignore these regulations, which can ultimately results to a truck accidents taking place.  If it is found that a driver was in excess of his allowed maximum hours of operation by law, then this could help prove that he was at fault for the accident.  Although this is just one example of a violation of trucking regulations, there are many others that one needs to consider when reviewing a trucking accident.

Not all acts of truck driver negligence are related to specific trucking regulations, but when an accident has been caused by a truck driver’s negligence, it is important to consider if any trucking regulations have also been violated.  As stated before, if it can be proved that regulations were violated, it is easier to prove the truck drivers negligence. 

Some of the most common types of truck driver negligence are:

  • Driver fatigue
  • Texting/Talking on a cell phone
  • Eating and drinking
  • Speeding
  • Not obeying signs
  • Driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Failure to yield the right of way
  • Overweight/improper loading
  • Falsified log books
  • Improper truck maintenance
  • Improper safety equipment
  • Aggressive driving
  • Failing to properly inspect trucks before, during, and after a route
  • Continuing to drive despite adverse road conditions
  • Violating the federal law on required sleep and rest time
  • Inadequate truck driver training

Not only are most of these acts illegal, they can cause danger to the other drivers on the road.  Although not all these types of driver negligence directly relate to a specific commercial trucking regulations, there are several types of evidence that can be collected to prove the truck driver involved in a truck accident was being negligent in his or her vehicle’s operation at the time of the accident.  Some of the key regulations to keep in mind, and how to possibly prove the regulation was violated are discussed in further detail below.

Federal Hours of Service Regulation

As stated before, truck driver fatigue is the number one cause for truck accidents.  This accounts for possibly as much 35-40% of all truck accidents. This is because truck drivers work long hours, have strict deadlines, and have to abide by rigorous schedules.  Because of this, truck drivers can often push themselves when on the road to the point of fatigue to meet strict deadlines.  Fatigue can mean lack of sleep, extreme tiredness, or exhaustion, and when a truck driver is fatigued, it is possible for them to fall asleep at the wheel of their truck, causing severe accidents.

For these reasons, the federal government as passed “Hours of Service” regulations, which govern how many hours a commercial truck driver can drive over certain periods of time.  The idea is that, these regulations ensure that commercial truck drivers get plenty of and number of accidents involving commercial trucks will be reduced.

Some of the regulations include the following:

  • An 11-hour driving limit.  No truck driver is allowed to drive more than 11 hours without taking 10 consecutive hours of rest between driving shifts.
  • A 14-hour on-duty limit. Drivers are not allowed to be on-duty more than 14 hours, only 11 of which can be spent on the road.
  • 60/70 hour week limit. A driver may not drive more than 60 hours in 7 consecutive days, or 70 hours in 8 consecutive days. A new 7/8 consecutive day period can start only after 34 or more hours off.

Despite these regulations, not all truck drivers and trucking companies follow them, due to the high schedule demands and financial incentives of the job.  There is much pressure to bend or break these rules in order to complete deliveries on time or ahead of schedule.  Truck drivers are required to maintain a log book of their driving hours, so one of the first areas to investigate, when in a commercial truck accident, are their driving logs.   It is important to know where the drivers have been in the days and hours preceding the accident, and how many hours they had been driving to determine if they were in violation of any “Hours of Service” regulations.  If it can be established that the driver was in violation of a regulation, then it will help establish they were at fault in the accident.

Truck Equipment Regulations

Another area of regulation involves the equipment used on a commercial truck.  The parts and equipment on a large commercial vehicle are more highly regulated then those of a standard passenger vehicle.  The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has made certain requirements for the maintenance and periodic inspections of large commercial trucks.   Before drivers are allowed to hit the road they are supposed to inspect their vehicles carefully.  As per the FMCSA guidelines, a driver of a tractor-trailer is required to perform an inspection of his or her vehicle before, during, and after a trip, so as to know about and locate any defects in the truck and repair them prior to putting the truck back on the road. 

Some of the inspection requirements a truck driver is required to comply with include:

  • Examine the truck to note its condition and look for spills or leaks
  • Idling the engine to warm it up and listen for unusual noises
  • Checking water levels in the engine and crankcase
  • Check that all lights and light signals are working properly
  • Check gauges to ensure they are showing proper readings
  • Check windshield wipers, horn, and other emergency devices are operating
  • Check all wheels and tires to ensure they are properly secured and inflated
  • Check to ensure trailer is properly hooked up
  • Stop and Inspect any problems a driver may notice while on the road

A pre-trip and post-trip inspection is required to be carried out daily for every tractor-trailer by the truck driver or trucking company.  This report should be kept on record and necessary repairs, according to the report, need to be made timely, prior to the vehicle returning to the road.  In addition to periodic self-inspections, federal regulations require that commercial motor vehicles pass an annual inspection of their equipment and systems.  This inspection must be done by a certified by the Department of Transportation (DOT).

For this reason, it is important to examine, inspection reports, maintenance logs, and the safety compliance materials that may have been issued by the trucking company, and to determine driver and company were in compliance with equipment and inspection regulations.    Additionally, it would be beneficial if an accident investigator has the chance to examine the truck itself.   Therefore, thy can independently determine if there was any faulty or improper equipment on the vehicle. 

  • Some of the equipment features to investigate are:
  • Lamps, reflective devices and electrical wiring
  • Brakes and related monitoring systems
  • Window construction and glazing
  • Fuel systems
  • Coupling devices and towing methods
  • Tires
  • Windshield wipers
  • Seats and restraints
  • Emergency equipment
  • Cargo security devices
  • Cab/body component

If any of these components are found to be damaged, defective, or missing, or the inspection of which were not complied with, it may be possible to show they were a factor in the truck accident.  Additionally if a the inspection and maintenance logs to not match what is on the truck, it can also show the truck driver or trucking company were in violation of regulations.  All of these things could help in proving their fault in the accident.

Licensing and Training Regulations

Driving a commercial truck requires a higher level of skill, knowledge, and experience than a regular personal vehicle.  Therefore, a commercial truck driver is required to have a special truck-driving license in order to legally drive a large truck called a Commercial Motor Vehicle license, or CMV.  If a driver does not have a CMV or it has been revoked for some reason he or she is not legally allowed to drive a commercial truck.  In order to obtain a CMV license drivers must pass both a skills and knowledge test.  Since commercial truck drivers are held to a higher standard than regular drivers, serious traffic violations, including but not limited to DWIs or DUIs can affect a driver’s ability to keep their CMV license.   Drivers can also have their CMV license revoked for other major traffic infractions.  Also, commercial truck drivers may be required to have special endorsements to drive certain kinds of commercial trucks. 

Some of the vehicles that require special endorsements are:

  • Trucks with double or triple trailers
  • Trucks with a tank
  • Trucks carrying hazardous materials
  • A passenger vehicle

A commercial truck driver is also required to undergo special training in order to drive tractor-trailer and semi-trucks.  This type of training is called Longer Combination Vehicle (LCV) training.  The purpose of this training is to establish minimum requirements for operators of longer combination vehicles.  If a trucking company hires a driver that does not have a CMV license and LCV training, then they could be liable in the accident for negligent hiring an un-qualified driver.  This is also true if a driver is driving a vehicle, which requires a special endorsement to operate, but does not have the required endorsement.  

Truck drivers also need to pass a physical exam every two years, and failing this test would restrict their driving ability.  Although the normal limits for what is consider driving is under the influence of alcohol is a Blood Alcohol Level (BAC) of .08%, truck drivers are not allowed to report for duty with a BAC of more than .02%.  They cannot carry alcohol with them unless is a part of the cargo on their vehicle.  Also they are not allowed to have any alcohol or any other type of drug that may impair their driving ability, within 8 hours of their driving shift.  Not complying with any of these trucking regulations can help establish liability on the part of the truck driver and or trucking company for trucking accidents they were involved in.  

LIABLITY FOR COMMERCIAL TRUCKING ACCIDENTS

The most obvious people to consider when determining who is at fault in a commercial trucking accident are the drivers of the vehicles, but these may not be the only parties that could be liable for damages in the accident.  Since commercial trucks have a long list of factors that are involved in the safe operation and maintenance of a vehicle, there are many other parties to consider.  Often times the trucking company can also be liable for the accident as the employer of the driver, but they may not be the only ones either.  

There are two main ways that an employer can be held responsible for an auto accident caused by one of its employees. The first way doesn’t necessarily require the employer be at fault in any direct way itself.  The law states employers are responsible for damage created by the actions of their employees if the action was part of the job they were employed to do.  To know if the employer was responsible for the actions of its employee at the time an auto accident occurred, one has to consider two important factors that determine if this law applies. 

The first is simply whether an employment relationship existed between the employer and employee.  The second is whether the related act, in this case driving a motor vehicle at the time of the accident, was within the scope of that person’s employment.  Although both of these factors would likely be the case for most commercial trucking accidents, a more in-depth look at when and how employers can be held responsible for the actions of their employees can be found in this book’s chapter entitled ‘Employers as Defendants.’

The second way is an action by the employer itself that may have contributed to the cause of the accident.  Some of the ways an employer can be found liable by its own actions are through the negligent hiring of employees, negligent supervision of employees, and through their responsibility as owner of the vehicle.  This type of liability is important however, because it can be applied to non-employers as well.   In commercial trucking accidents there are many parties that have an impact whether the vehicle was suitably loaded, maintained, and operated on the road. 

Some of the at-fault parties for a truck accident could include:

  • The trucking company or motor carrier
  • The truck repair company
  • The truck manufacturer
  • The owner of the trucks freight
  • The last vehicle inspector
  • The truck owner
  • The truck owner’s parent company
  • The truck driver
  • The driver’s employer

Each of these parties could have a part in the operation of the truck, whether directly involved, or giving it an endorsement that the driver and vehicle are fit for operation on the road.   It is important to consider what part each of these parties had in the operation and deployment of the vehicle.  If any of these parties were responsible for, or were the cause of violating trucking regulations, they could be partially liable for an accident that was the result of that violation.

PROVING A TRUCK ACCIDENT CASE

With higher damages at stake, so many potential defendants, and trucking regulations at play, a commercial trucking accident can be much more complicated than a regular personal vehicle accident.   For this reason, it may also be harder to prove who is exactly at fault and for what portion of the accident.  The key to building a successful case starts with the accident investigation. This how the majority of the evidence is gathered.  The three things that must be most thoroughly investigated are the accident scene, the truck itself, and the related records.  

An inspection of the truck is important for some of the reasons listed earlier in this chapter.  The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has made certain requirements for the maintenance of commercial trucks, and it is important to find out if the vehicle was in compliance with these requirements.  A list of items that one should check on the vehicle is listed above in the section on trucking equipment regulations.   It is also important, as in any auto accident, to examine the accident scene.

Some things that should be documented to the greatest extent possible are:

  • Date and time of the accident
  • Where exactly the accident took place
  • The position of the vehicles before and after the accident
  • Photographs of the damage to the vehicles
  • Photographs of traffic signs, obstructions, point of collision, & general scene
  • Immediate recollection of the details of the accident
  • Name and address and statements from anyone who witness the accident

The more information one can gather from the truck and the accident scene, the easier it will be to later prove the case against the defendants.

One of the biggest difference in proving a trucking accident case though, as compared to a personal vehicle case, is the other records and documentation that need to be collected.  This can often be the difference in proving that a driver or trucking company was in violation of regulations.  Therefore, obtaining and properly examining this information is crucial to the case. 

Some of the records and other evidence that one should be looking to obtain include:

  • Repair records
  • Log books
  • Cargo reports
  • On-board recording data
  • Inspection records
  • Accident witnesses
  • Electronic log systems
  • Cell phone records
  • Accident reports
  • Crash Data Retrieval Information
  • Driver’s license and certification information

Items such as logbooks can show if the driver was in excess of his mandatory operating requirements, and inspection records go a long way in showing if the vehicle was inspected at the proper intervals, and the necessary repairs were made.   Cargo reports can show if the freight was in compliance the load restrictions and other cargo regulations.  These items are vital in not just proving the fault of the other party or parties, but in determining if there have been any violations of trucking regulations, and who was liable for them, which in turn goes a long way in proving the case against them.

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