According to the American Trucking Association, commercial trucks transport nearly 73% by weight of America’s freight. In 2019, there were 37.9 million commercial trucks registered, representing 14.4% of all vehicles registered in the U.S. There is little doubt that the country’s economy relies on the trucking industry. However, truck accidents can cause significant physical, emotional and financial damage to passenger vehicle occupants and motorcyclists.
In 2020, 439,206 traffic accidents involved large trucks, leading to an estimated 146,930 injuries and 4,965 fatalities. Determining liability in a truck accident is often a complex issue. If you have a truck accident that causes injuries, who do you hold accountable, the trucking company or the driver? The answer is: It depends.
Why Is Liability in Truck Accidents so Complex?
While regulations for passenger vehicles are largely left to individual states, the federal government implements the rules and oversees the commercial trucking industry. Trucks often carry freight across state lines, and some cargo is hazardous. The size of many vehicles and their loads makes them especially dangerous for other cars on the road.
To improve commercial truck safety, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration establishes guidelines, regulations and responsibilities throughout the chain of operations. The FMCSA’s standards ensure drivers and trucks can safely perform their jobs. When a truck accident occurs, any individuals or entities that fail to meet their responsibilities according to the FMCSA or general traffic laws can be held liable for the accident.
Traffic accident liability is based on the idea of negligence. To determine whether a party is negligent, you must establish that the following four factors exist:
- The party had a responsibility to act in a manner that reasonably ensures the safety of others.
- The party failed to meet its responsibility.
- This failure caused or contributed to the truck crash.
- You sustained verifiable injuries as a result of the truck crash.
All four criteria must be met to hold a party accountable for the accident and your injuries. In a truck accident, the two parties most often at fault are the truck driver and the trucking company. Sometimes they share liability.
When Is the Truck Driver Liable for a Truck Accident?
The FMCSA established rules for driver safety, including strict laws on alcohol use, drug use and required testing. These regulations are more stringent than states use for passenger vehicles. A trucker who drives their semi with a blood alcohol level of 0.04 is breaking the law and may be liable for the accident. Drivers are also prohibited from texting and using handheld devices, regardless of what state laws say.
It takes a significant level of concentration to manage a semi safely. Many drivers have routes that cover long distances, and they have deadlines to meet. However, the FMCSA imposes limits on driving time. The limitations include the number of consecutive driving hours, length of required breaks and number of days in a row they can drive.
Drivers are responsible for performing inspections on their trucks and cargo before driving. They must verify that the vehicle is in safe driving condition and that the freight is secured according to standards. If they take over for another trucker, they must undergo the same procedure before starting their shift.
If a trucker broke any of these rules, it is possible that the driver’s behavior contributed to the accident, whether from distracted driving, drowsy driving, falling asleep at the wheel, driving while under the influence or losing control of their truck due to a load shift. As with any motorist, truck drivers are responsible for their driving behaviors when operating a commercial vehicle. They may be liable whenever they engage in unsafe driving behaviors, not just those related to stricter FMCSA rules.
When Is the Trucking Company Liable for a Truck Accident?
In many instances, the trucking company is liable when a driver has an accident. If the trucker is an employee, the motor carrier may have ultimate responsibility for the driver’s actions, much the same way other employers can be held responsible for employee behaviors. Several situations are pretty common trucking company violations that may make them liable in a truck accident.
Federal law requires trucking companies to provide adequate training or ensure their employees have received the training needed to drive a commercial vehicle. The companies must also ensure their drivers understand the rules and regulations as part of the training. When a driver’s error leads to an accident, the responsibility for the collision may partly fall to the trucking company.
Though the truck driver is responsible for inspecting the truck, the trailer and the freight, if a mechanical failure causes the collision, the motor carrier may be at fault. Federal law requires trucking companies to ensure their fleet is maintained and operating safely. They must follow a regular maintenance schedule and take care of any repairs.
The FMCSA prohibits them from allowing any trucks on the road that are unsafe to drive. Brake and tire failures are two of the most common causes of truck accidents where the truck caused the crash. These incidents occur at a higher frequency than drug- or alcohol-related accidents.
If a motor carrier fails to follow the maintenance schedule or have repairs done on the truck, the motor carrier may be at least partially responsible for the accident. However, it is also possible that the company had repairs or maintenance done, and the failure still occurred. In this instance, the company that did the repairs or maintenance may also be responsible.
Another potential truck accident cause is a load failure. If the freight is not secured correctly, it can shift, leading to an imbalance in the trailer. A truck driver may lose control of the trailer when the weight shifts quickly, which often occurs going around curves or when the trucker applies the brakes.
Additionally, unsecured or improperly secured cargo on open-bed trailers can fall off the truck, striking other vehicles or leading to collisions as cars attempt to avoid the fallen freight. If the motor carrier employs the cargo loaders, the company may be liable when a cargo failure causes or contributes to the accident.
Trucking companies are known for pressuring their drivers to reach destinations in an unreasonable amount of time. The motor carriers are responsible for ensuring their drivers adhere to the rules. However, drivers frequently violate the regulations for hours of service due to pressure from their employer. Though the FMCSA now requires electronic driving logs in trucks, many motor carriers figure out how to bypass the devices and continue to force long drive times without sufficient breaks.
Driver as an Independent Operator
Often, drivers operate as independent contractors. They own their rigs, carry their own insurance and contract with multiple companies. The driver is not a trucking company employee. Instead, the trucker is also the trucking company, so you can’t separate the two when determining who is at fault.
Can a Truck Accident Attorney Help Determine Who Is Responsible?
If you sustained injuries in a truck accident and aren’t sure who is at fault, the attorneys at Cellino Law are here to help. We have experience handling these cases and can assess the evidence to determine who to hold accountable. You can contact us 24/7. We won’t charge any fees until you win. Contact us today for a free case review.
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