For thirty years, I was the son of a big rig driver. Today, I am the son of a retired big rig driver. Some of my favorite memories are riding with my dad in the summertime when school was out. There was always something special about the open road. And I could always sleep like a baby in the sleeper of that old rig. In college, I drove a smaller truck part time for the dining service department. Naturally, I have always been obsessed with big engines.
But it isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. Eighteen wheelers can cause devastating injuries if operated negligently. And many companies are irresponsible in their hiring practices and negligent when it comes to protecting others on the road. Many underestimate the level of skill that it takes to operate a large truck. Big trucks must merge, exit freeways, maneuver around intersections and do everything a normal passenger car must do. Plus, drivers need to be able to back up and turn around a large machine in a small space. Experience is truly what makes a great truck driver.
Insurance is a huge issue for commercial trucks. Tractor trailers must be registered with the Department of Transportation (DOT) if they travel interstate. To be compliant, 18 wheelers must carry a type of insurance called a Motor Carrier Safety 90 policy. There are some limitations to MCS-90. For instance, the typical minimum policy that is written by an insurance company under MCS-90 is $750,000. Many individual owner-operator truck drivers carry the minimum policy. These policies can be a significant portion of a small trucking company’s overhead, costing around $1000 per month on the low end. Many accidents involving big rigs result in verdicts of $8,000,000 or more. Seven hundred fifty thousand dollars in coverage isn’t nearly enough in that scenario.
The key to trucking cases is a legal doctrine called Respondeat Superior. That is simply a fancy way of saying that an employer is responsible for the negligence of the employee. This is clearly the case when it comes to employee drivers while they are driving in the scope of their employment. But, the size of the company behind the driver makes a difference. If the driver is an owner-operator, it is unlikely that a multi-million dollar verdict would be collectible, and might end up partially discharged in a bankruptcy proceeding. But if the driver is working for a big company like FedEx, Wal-Mart, Roadway, England, or others, there are massive insurance policies and reserves to cover liability created by drivers.
Big companies can create special issues when it comes to litigation. First of all, many companies are not simply covered by a basic MCS-90 compliant insurance policy. It is important to understand the types of loss mitigation a large company might use. But, it is also important to note that big companies are usually better covered than smaller companies because of the costs involved.
Self-insured: Often, large companies opt to place a large bond or amount of cash in reserve and hire some people to manage it. They may even have a legal department who handles their claims, or they may outsource this responsibility to a law firm or private company.
Umbrella: An umbrella policy is generally written to function as a cover on top of a large insurance policy or self-insured reserve. For example, an individual can buy an auto policy with a cap of one million and add a large insurance policy specifically for claims which go over that policy limit. Many companies do this on top of their own self-insured reserve. Often you will see multiple defense attorneys representing a trucking company. Each policy or department will hire a different defense firm. Umbrella policies can have very high limits, even reaching $100 million in some cases.
Equipment and Driver Experience
It is important to look at the entirety of a situation surrounding an accident, not just the dynamics of the accident itself. It matters who was driving, the status of the truck, the type of load, and the weight distribution.
Eighteen wheelers are heavy. The average car weight about 5,000 lbs, but a tractor trailer is legally able to weigh up to 80,000 lbs, or 40 tons. But the distribution of the weight can make a huge difference in the mechanics of a car accident. There are many laws which govern how a truck must function in order to distribute weight. On most trucks, the back wheels on the trailer slide forward and backward. This is a tool to make the truck more maneuverable, but it can also completely change the dynamics of an accident. Weight and weight distribution is often policed by strategically located weigh stations on heavily traveled roads. But often that does not solve the problem. Overweight trucks are dangerous and can pose a hazard, especially if the driver is not experienced in handling heavy loads.
There are also issues when it comes to special loads. Trucks can carry hazardous materials and even liquids. The dynamics of a liquid load can be very different than boxes of goods. It can affect how the truck goes uphill and downhill and even how quick the truck can stop.
Driver experience is key. There are many things that can go wrong on the road. This is why it takes a significant amount of education to license a driver. It is very irresponsible to put a new driver in a challenging position when they are not ready for it. This is an element of many lawsuits against trucking companies.
Big trucks also require big maintenance. One of the things we always ask to examine during a lawsuit are the maintenance logs of the involved truck. Many companies are negligent when it comes to maintenance and that can cause a truck to take longer to stop or for the driver to have less control over the vehicle.
In many states, it is illegal to pull more than two trailers at a time. The maximum length of a single trailer is 53 feet. However, it is legal in Nevada to pull up to three trailers up to a maximum length of 105 feet. Driving a vehicle pulling three trailers is much different than your normal tractor trailer. Road conditions such as wind or rain can affect a triple much more than a single or double. But, the turning radius of a triple trailer is much shorter because there are three pivot points. Companies argue that triple trailers are more efficient because of the turning radius and the ability to haul more goods with fewer trucks. But, triple trailers are generally less stable in a traffic lane and can leave the lane, causing an accident.
The real legal issue arises when a company puts someone in a triple who has not been properly trained. Drivers are required to have a special endorsement on their driver’s license. Wind is also a huge issue, and many triples are taken out of service in high winds. But, no matter the length of a tractor trailer, it can do a lot of damage in a traffic accident.
Federal courts have what is called “diversity” jurisdiction. This means that a lawsuit is between two parties who reside in different states. It is arguable that major companies reside in multiple states, so diversity jurisdiction is often available in cases that involve big companies. The advantage for the company is that federal juries notoriously award smaller judgments than state level juries. Plus, the large firms hired by big companies can often take advantage of plaintiff’s counsel with less experience in federal court.
Wal-Mart is notorious for this trick. They claim diversity jurisdiction in many cases against them to remove the case from state court into federal. Our firm has litigated against Wal-Mart in federal court before, and that experience is key.
Log books and Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs) have been used to enforce Hours of Service regulations. These regulations are to combat tired drivers. In the trucking world, driving for ridiculous numbers of hours in a row meant more profits. Companies and owner operators could cause serious injuries by falling asleep at the wheel. For many years, drivers were fully entrusted to log their own hours in paper log books. This led to a lot of fudging of the numbers so that drivers could meet aggressive goals.
In 2016, regulations were passed to phase in requirements of ELDs on property and passenger carrying trucks. The goal was safety, of course. The regulations also prohibit harassment based on ELD data in the workplace. Even with all this in place, it is possible that a driver is being pushed behind his or her capacity. If that driver causes an injury to a third party, it can be a key factor in a lawsuit.
In the trucking profession, ELDs have faced a lot of resistance. Truckers tend to favor the freedom to push themselves. In the legal profession, it makes hours of service data easier to obtain and interpret, rather than relying on the driver’s own pen. Whether or not you support the hot button issue of ELD mandates, they make safety regulations easier to enforce.
If you want to learn more about hours of service laws and ELDs, click on the link below:
Commercial trucks can cause massive injuries. But, there is more to look at than in a case involving four wheel commuter vehicles. Experience is key in trucking cases. Our firm is uniquely situated and experienced to give you the best possible result if you are injured by the negligence of a commercial driver.