Passenger vehicles share the roads with millions of trucks hauling freight, making pick-ups and deliveries, transporting hazardous materials, collecting garbage and performing countless other activities. The size mismatch between commercial trucks and passenger vehicles is obvious to any driver who has had a semi fly past while driving on the Turnpike.
When a commercial truck collides with a smaller passenger vehicle, the injuries, especially to people in the passenger vehicle, often are very severe. In 2012, truck accidents resulted in almost 4,000 deaths, while another 100,000 people were injured.
Types of Truck Accidents
Truck accidents occur in several distinct ways, or types. The type of accident often influences the kind and severity of injuries that result. Certain types of accidents also tend to be associated with specific driver behaviors and/or road conditions, and those factors ultimately play a role in determining legal liability for the injuries.
In analyzing the causes of, and potential liability for, a truck accident, it’s useful to be aware of the differences between these types:
- Single vehicle accidents versus multiple vehicle accidents; single vehicle accidents typically result from road hazards, driver error or defects in the vehicle.
- Head on collisions; the truck collides with another vehicle traveling in the opposite direction. Tremendous forces are generated in these collisions—the speed and mass of the vehicles essentially “cumulate.” Deaths are common and severe injuries even more so, among occupants of both vehicles. Many head-ons occur because a driver fell sleepy or actually asleep, was operating while impaired, or was suffering a medical problem.
- Rear end collisions; these typically involve the truck crashing into another vehicle travelling in the same direction. Injuries are more likely and tend to be more severe for occupants of the front vehicle, especially if there’s a full load in the truck. These may be caused by the truck driver, through inattention, impairment, negligence, etc. or by the actions of the front vehicle driver (stopping or slowing suddenly; cutting abruptly in front of the truck).
- “Under-ride” collisions are those in which a smaller vehicle crashes into the rear of much larger truck, and the momentum carries the front of the small vehicle under the trailer. The passenger compartment of the smaller vehicle continues forward until it hits the bottom edge of the trailer. The driver of the smaller vehicle tends to suffer severe injuries, especially to the head. Under-rides are usually caused by the same actions that cause rear-enders, with the positions of the truck and the other vehicle reversed. These accidents are discussed in greater detail below, in connection with big rig accidents.
- Side collisions involve the front of one vehicle crashing into the side of the other. This often happens when: (1) one vehicle is turning across the path of the other; (2) One vehicle fails to stop at a traffic light or stop sign; and (3) One vehicle makes a sudden and very sharp lane change.
- Rollovers occur when the balance of the truck is upset by other forces. Many rollovers are single vehicle accidents in which the truck’s center of gravity is beyond its wheel base; other rollovers happen because the truck’s balance is upset when the truck is struck by another vehicle.
Causes of Truck Accidents
Driver behaviors—speeding, tailgating, ignoring road signs, etc.–can obviously cause an accident. So can a driver’s distraction, fatigue and impairment from drugs (legal or illegal), alcohol or a medical condition. Inexperience in handling a vehicle of the size and type being driven may play a role.
Many non-driver factors often play a role in truck accidents:
- Defects in or failure of brakes, tires or mechanical parts
- Trailer jackknifing
- Debris or obstacles in the road
- Shifting of the load
Determining Who Caused the Accident
Step one in any vehicle accident case is figuring out what happened just before and during the accident. As a matter of fact—totally apart from legal liability for any injuries—it’s crucial to determine what happened. Primary questions that have to be answered include:
- Which driver did what and when?
- Why did they do it?
- What path did each vehicle take?
- What other circumstances were present that affected what the drivers and vehicles did?
An experienced Maine truck accident attorney can, with the help of other experts, reconstruct the accident, using multiple pieces of evidence, such as physical evidence from the accidents scene, like skid marks, the positions in which the vehicles came to rest, and the distances involved; the kind and location of the vehicle damage that occurred; examination of various vehicle parts that might have played a role in the accident; testimony of all witnesses (drivers and observers), and computer models that blend that information to produce a reenactment of the events.
“Big Rig” Accidents
When a passenger auto collides with a large “semi” tractor trailer, it’s obvious which vehicle and its occupants will get the worse of it. There are, however, several characteristics of big rigs that make them more likely to be involved in collisions:
- There are areas around the truck which the driver can’t see (“blind spots”).
- Longer stopping times; if a big and a passenger vehicle are both travelling at 5 mph, it takes twice as long to bring the big rig to a stop.
- Less maneuverability; especially in making turns; many an impatient car driver has paid the price for not understanding that a big rig driver swinging left was, in fact, preparing for a wide turn to the right.
In fact, in 2013 there were 327,000 crashes in the US involving big trucks. Of these, 69,000 involved personal injuries, and over 3,500 involved a fatality.
The increased risk of operating big rigs on the public roads, and the potential for severe injury and death when they are in an accident puts a lot of responsibility for safety on the shoulders of the truck drivers and trucking companies who hire them. That’s why big rig drivers are held to high standards for training and competence, why we regulate the hours that the drivers can work without rest, and why we have extensive regulations about truck safety (all discussed under the section below on federal regulations).
In the typical underride, a truck stops or slows, and a following vehicle’s momentum carries it into the rear of the truck and under the back edge. These accidents are among the deadliest of truck accidents because the bottom edge of the truck crushes the top of the smaller vehicle. A significant portion of all deaths in truck accidents occur in underrides. Anyone in the smaller vehicle is subject to severe injuries to the head, face and neck; decapitation is possible.
Vehicle safety devices like airbags and seatbelts are of no protection in an underride; they merely hold the passenger in a position that practically guarantees injury. The best protection for the big truck to have a strong crash guard attached to the back. The guard extends far enough below the back edge of the truck that the smaller vehicle hits the guard, which prevents further momentum and keeps the smaller vehicle from riding further forward.
Rear crash guards have been required in the United States for many years, but testing showed that guards that met the strength requirements of the US regulation weren’t adequate to their job. The smaller vehicle just crashed through it and continued under the truck. Stronger crash guards (as required in Canada) were much more successful in preventing underrides.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it was going to begin the rulemaking process for upgrading the strength requirements for American trucks. It’s also evaluating the possibility of new rules for side guards and front override guards.
Who is Legally Responsible?
Most big rigs operate as part of the commercial “long-haul” freight business. The relationships in that business, especially between the drivers and the various shippers, brokers etc., are legally complex. Any one of several different entities may own the truck. Sometimes it’s the driver, but other times it’s a shipper, a transportation company, or some other third party.
The variety and complexity of the relationships is evident from the fact that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) found that, in 2014, among 532,024 interstate motor carriers and intrastate Hazardous Materials (HM) motor carriers:
- 254,884 were for-hire carriers
- 223,911 were private carriers
- 43,591 were both for-hire and private carriers
- 9,638 were neither for-hire nor private carriers (e.g., government).
Ultimately, legal liability for the injuries suffered in a truck accident will depend on two factors:
- Who factually caused the accident
- Who else does the law make responsible for that person’s actions
In most cases, liability will fall on one or more of these:
- The truck driver
- A driver of some other vehicle involved in the accident
- The trucking company
- The truck manufacturer
All the circumstances have to be considered. Was a highway’s design or poor maintenance to blame? The government department responsible for those jobs may be liable. Was a poor job of loading the truck to blame? The shipper may be liable.
Figuring this all out is very time consuming and requires a thorough knowledge of personal injury law and the many subtleties of commercial trucking. An experience Maine truck accident attorney is invaluable.
Delivery Truck Accidents
Local delivery trucks don’t have the size of big rigs, but delivery truck drivers are frequently under serious time pressure. Sometimes that pressure comes from the employer—UPS is famous for holding its drivers to strict time limits on deliveries; some pizza restaurants “guarantee delivery” in a certain amount of time. Other times, the pressure comes from more practical concerns about getting back to the garage by closing time, or finishing early so that the driver can leave for an appointment.
Whatever the reason for the pressure, it encourage behaviors like speeding, risky parking and reckless driving. It can also preoccupy the driver and impair concentration.
Even in the absence of unrealistic time pressure, delivery truck drivers have a job that leaves them at the mercy of traffic, parking conditions, and the like. Double parking, backing up against the flow of traffic, u-turns and sudden and frequent stops are all part of many delivery truck drivers’ lives.
As with other kinds of trucks, problems with the cargo can also contribute to an accident in various ways:
- Spilling out onto the road
- Shifting in the truck, causing loss of control or balance
- Causing blown tires or loss of control if the load is too heavy
Persons Potentially Liable for Injuries in Delivery Truck Accidents
As with big rigs, simply determining who factually caused the accident may not tell you who may be legally responsible for the injuries. If the cause was a driver’s negligence, of course, the driver may be liable. Even then, however, there may be a question about whether the employer should ever have hired the driver based on the driver’s past history.
The owner of the business and/or the person who is the driver’s immediate supervisor may also be liable if they:
- Required that deliveries be made too fast (either by imposing time limits or simply requiring that too many be made during a day)
- Supplied a vehicle that was defective
- Overloaded the truck or improperly distributed the load
Federal Regulations and Truck Accidents
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) impose extensive, detailed standards for all aspects of trucking that affect public safety. Subjects include:
- Maintenance and safety equipment
- Driver minimum qualifications
- Limits on the maximum hours for drivers
- Financial responsibility (insurance) requirements
The regulations themselves don’t provide compensation to people injured as a result of violations. But if a violation occurred and was a cause of the accident, it’s evidence of negligence, and negligence is the basis for imposing liability. And violations are common. In roadside inspection during 2014, for example, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found more than 170,000 violations of the restrictions on hours of driving. It also found more than 100,000 instances of drivers exceeding speed limits by 6 or more mph (almost 40,000 of these involved exceeding the limit by 11 or more mph).
In any case that involves a truck subject to the regulations, the analysis has to include whether there was a violation of a regulation and, if so, how that violation contributed to the accident.
Get Experienced Help Early
Recovering for injuries suffered in a truck accident begins with getting the facts of the accident straight. The sooner you begin doing that, the better. An experienced truck accident attorney knows what evidence to look for, how to employ it once it’s found, and how to stand up to the large and wealthy companies and insurance companies that frequently are involved.
The Jabar Injury Law firm has more than 35 years experience handling serious injury cases in Maine. We understand trucking accidents and the people involved in defending against your claims. Whether through settlement or a trial, we have successfully recovered tens of millions of dollars for our injured clients. Call us today to arrange a free consultation to discuss your case. There’s no fee until you have recovered money for your damages.