Complete Guide to Trucking Accidents
In 2013, the most recent year for which there are statistics, 3,964 people were killed in the U.S. in crashes involving large trucks. Approximately 500 of those deaths occurred in trucking accidents on Texas roadways. An additional 95,000 in the U.S. were seriously injured. A large truck is defined as one that weighs more than 10,000 pounds.
Crashes with trucks are inherently more serious than crashes with cars. Trucks weigh more, they are much larger and often carry cargo that makes them even heavier. The cargo is often carried in separate trailers pulled behind the truck cab. The trailers are prone to weave or separate from the truck, causing the truck driver to lose control and crash. Cargo may spill on the road, creating another hazard. Due to the size of the truck, truck drivers have a large blind spot, making it difficult for them to see other drivers when they are changing lanes.
There are rules and regulations applicable only to truck drivers. Additionally, there are rules and regulations applicable to the owners of the business for whom the drivers are working. When drivers negligently cause an accident, or when the drivers break the rules and an accident results, those who are injured have the right to file a claim for damages against those responsible for the accident.
Types of trucking accidents
- Jack knife: When a semi-truck is hauling a trailer, whether the trailer is empty or full of cargo, the trailer may sway about, causing the driver to lose control. The end result is that the trailer and truck cab jack knife, which means they end up facing in different directions. The causes range from the driver braking improperly, bad road conditions, faulty equipment or improper loading of the cargo so it becomes unbalanced.
- Under ride: When a truck stops quickly, the car behind may be unable to stop and, since it is much smaller than the truck, it drives under the truck. Needless to say, this type of accident generally results in serious injury or death to the car passengers.
- Roll over: This type of accident is what it sounds like. The truck rolls over. It happens when the driver is going up or down an incline, when a tire catches on a curb, when a driver turns too sharply and many other reasons. Although excessive speed may be involved, roll overs often happen even when the driver is traveling within the speed limit or at a speed deemed safe for the road conditions. If the roll over causes the truck to end up on top of a car or cars, injuries and death result.
- Tire blow outs: When this happens to a truck, the consequences are more severe than when it happens in an ordinary car. When a big truck has a blow out, due to its size and weight, the driver almost always will lose control of the vehicle and crashes occur, causing severe injuries or even death to those involved.
Big trucks have accidents in a number of ways. Some of the most common ones are:
Common errors by Truck Drivers
More than 90 percent of all trucking accidents are attributable to driver negligence. A few years ago, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) conducted a study of 963 accidents involving large trucks and identified the three most common driver errors causing accidents:
- Drivers traveling out of their lane. They either drove off the road or into another lane causing them to roll over or crash into a car in the adjoining lane.
- Driving too fast for the road conditions which can cause the cargo to shift and the driver losing control.
- Not braking properly and plowing into the back of a vehicle in front of them.
The study also identified reasons these driver traffic errors occurred:
- Drivers simply failed to perform. They fell asleep or became disabled in some way by having a heart attack, seizure or some other type of sudden physical impairment.
- Drivers failed to recognize the danger. They may have been distracted or simply failed to note that conditions were such that an accident about to happen.
- Drivers making poor decisions. This includes driving too fast for the road conditions, passing vehicles when it was not safe, following too closely or misjudging the speed of another vehicle.
- Poor performance by the driver who may have lost control of the truck, panicked and made poor overall driving decisions.
- Driver fatigue.
- Failure to properly inspect the vehicle. Many accidents are caused by trucks having defective brakes or tires.
- Failure to properly load and secure the cargo.
- Driver under the influence of alcohol.
Truck drivers are under pressure to get their cargo to its destination within a certain period of time. If they are late, they may lose their jobs, the cargo may be unusable or penalties will be assessed for the tardiness. In order to try to combat this, the FMCSA has developed a list of requirements truck drivers must follow, among those are:
- Drivers must keep a log documenting the time they have spent driving and resting. For every 11 hours they drive, they are required to take a 10-hour rest break before driving again. Other regulations apply for driving and resting depending on the overall length of the trip and other factors.
- All use of handheld electronic devices is prohibited no matter what the law of the state they are driving through. Drivers who are caught violating this prohibition may lose their license and they, and the company they are driving for, will incur substantial fines. If a driver is involved in a crash while violating this rule, he or she will be held liable almost 100 percent of the time.
Companies who hire truck drivers also have responsibilities to help prevent accidents.
Errors by Driving Companies
The remaining 10 percent of crashes that are not due to driver failure can almost all be attributed to failures of the company who hired the drivers to follow federal rules and regulations. When drivers of large trucks are involved in a crash, companies for whom they are driving may be held liable for the accident if the driving company was negligent in its duties. Some common company failures include:
- Failure to do a background check on the driver or failing to do a complete and proper background check. Companies are required to check DMV records of each driver applicant as well as police accident reports. They also are required to verify the training and experience of each driver, including how many years of experience the driver has for driving the specific class of vehicle he or she will be driving.
- Failure to maintain and inspect paperwork to ensure drivers are following regulations. This includes monitoring the logs that drivers are required to keep to verify the driver is resting the correct number of hours as required by law, properly inspecting the vehicle and complying with all other regulations required of the drivers.
- Failure to properly maintain the fleet. Periodic inspections are required of all big trucks owned by the company and logs must be kept as to date of the inspections, the results of the inspections, and any repairs and upgrades performed on each truck.
Handling a Truck Accident Personal Injury Case
Truck accident cases differ from ordinary personal injury cases. An experienced truck accident attorney will know how to overcome obstacles and how to deal with truck drivers’ insurers in fighting for the rights of the insured and how to obtain discovery from so the the proper entities will be held responsible. Some of discovery required for trucking accidents not generally required for ordinary car crashes include:
- The need for discovery concerning the pre-wreck history of both the truck driver involved in the accident and the company for whom the driver was working.
- Obtaining the driving logs the driver is required to keep under federal law.
- Obtaining company inspection reports kept for the vehicle itself as well as documentation of supervision and training the company exercised and documented about the driver who caused the crash.
A company who was negligent in hiring, training and supervising its drivers, or who has a history of violating federal safety regulations, may be subject to punitive damages in addition to economic and non-economic damages. At a minimum, enhanced compensatory damages may be available.
Surviving a Truck Accident
Due to the weight and size of large trucks, catastrophic injuries are more common in crashes with them than than they are with crashes with regular automobiles. Some of the most common injuries are:
- Broken bones.
- Neck and back injuries.
- Severe burns.
- Loss of a limb.
- Permanent disability.
- Traumatic brain injury.
- Spinal cord injuries.
Many injuries are catastrophic, which means they are permanent and the person suffering such an injury will need life-long care and life-long medical expenses. The person will be incapable of performing the activities of daily living, such as fixing meals, feeding themselves, brushing their teeth, combing their hair and other similar tasks that are considered routine. They will need a caregiver to do those tasks for them or, at a minimum, assist them in performing them.
They will be unable to work and will have lost wages. Pain and suffering will be almost immeasurable. Expert evaluation and testimony is generally required to prove the projected costs of on-going care depending on the nature of the injury and the amount of care that will be required. Experts will project the medical expenses that will be expected as well as the amount of wages projected to be lost.
Compensatory Damages Available in Truck Accident Cases
Big truck crash victims generally face a long road to recovery even if they are not permanently disabled. The law allows for different types of damages depending on the loss to the victim. Compensatory damages, according to Texas law, includes economic and noneconomic damages. Damages are the way of compensating victims for their losses incurred as well as those they expect to incur in the future.
Some examples of economic damages include:
- All current medical bills incurred as a result of the accident.
- Ongoing medical bills that will be incurred due to the necessity of future medical care.
- All rehabilitation expenses, including reimbursement for gasoline and other travel expenses if necessary in order to obtain the required rehabilitation services.
- All current lost wages incurred due to time off work as a result of the accident.
- Loss of earning capacity, which includes all wages that will be lost in the future due to the inability to work as a result of injuries incurred in the accident. This also includes the difference in wages if the injured person is able to return to a lower paying type of job but unable to resume their original higher paying career.
- Wages that will be lost over the lifetime of the injured person if the person is permanently disabled.
- Job retraining expenses if required in order for the injured person to be employed in the future.
Non-economic Damages: While economic damages are based on actual monetary loses, victims of big truck accidents suffer damages for which there is no exact calculation. Expert evaluation and testimony is generally required to place a value on these losses and the amount will vary depending on the previous life of the injured and the future outlook.
Some examples include:
- Pain and suffering. Experts generally place a value on this considering the actual amount of economic loss.
- Emotional distress. Each case is evaluated individually and whether damages are awarded for emotional distress depends on the circumstances surrounding the accident and the nature and seriousness of the injury. Those suffering from catastrophic injuries or permanently disabled are more likely to receive damages for emotional distress than those who recover quickly.
- Loss of consortium or companionship. This is designed to compensate a family member of the injured person who can prove the future of the relationship has been damaged due to the injured person’s injuries.
- Loss due to disfigurement and physical impairment.
- Loss of enjoyment of life.
- All other nonpecuniary losses of any kind.
Punitive or Exemplary Damages
Punitive damages are to punish the offenders and make them examples so as to deter future negligent conduct. These types of damages are generally unavailable in personal injury cases where the claim is that the responsible person or entity was negligent. In big truck crashes, where it can be proven the driver or business that hired the driver, violated federal rules or regulations, or had a history of such violations, punitive damages may be available.
Punitive damages are also available when the offender acted with gross negligence. Under Texas law, gross negligence is defined as one when, “viewed objectively from the standpoint of the actor at the time of its occurrence involves an extreme degree of risk, considering the probability and magnitude of the potential harm to others” and the offender “nevertheless proceeds with conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of others.”
Settlements: Lump Sum or Structured
Although a personal injury attorney experienced in handling big truck accidents will prepare the case thoroughly with the assumption it will go to trial, a large percentage of cases settle before trial since so many cases are caused by negligent drivers and those who hire them. It is often less expensive and in their best interest, as well as the best interest of those injured, to settle before going to trial.
There are two possible types of settlements. Lump sum or structured. The injured person, or the person’s representative if the person is so severely injured they are unable to make decisions for themselves, will decide with the help of their attorney and a financial planner what is best for the family and the injured party. Factors to consider in deciding which type works best include the injured party’s tax situation, how the money will be spent and whether the recipient needs help managing a large sum of money.
- Lump sum settlements: This is just what it sounds like. The insurer pays one lump sum and it is up to the injured persons receiving it to do with it whatever they want. They can invest it or take a round the world cruise, but when it is gone, it is gone. There will be no further money coming their way. One of the dangers of accepting a lump sum is that the recipient will have problems managing the money and it will be spent too early and not be available later in life when the injured party is still incurring medical expenses and still losing wages.
- Structured settlements: A structured settlement provides for periodic payments over a period of time. “Structured” means just that. The way the money is paid is structured according to the needs of the injured party. Settlements may provide for an initial lump sum with payments to paid periodically monthly or annually over a period of years. Each case is unique and the way the settlement is structured will depend on the long-term needs of the injured person, including the likelihood of recovery.
Big truck accidents can cause such devastating and catastrophic injuries, a personal injury attorney can provide the experience and resources to assist injured parties in their claims for compensation. There are time limits within which your compensation claim must be filed. Contact our attorneys today for a free consultation.