From a legal perspective, accidents involving tractor trailer rigs and other commercial vehicles are quite different from accidents involving private passenger vehicles. Here are some of those differences:
Regulations: Unlike private passenger vehicles, the maintenance and use of commercial vehicles is subject to strict regulation. For example, there are federal and state regulations which govern everything from how much weight can be on a given vehicle to how many hours a driver can legally work per day. The violation of any of those standards can be a basis for liability against the owner of the tractor, the trailer, third parties, or some combination thereof.
Registration: It is not uncommon for a tractor to be owned and insured by one party, while the trailer is owned and insured by a second party, and the load itself is owned by a third party. It is important to understand these relationships so that recovery is sought against all proper parties.
Liability of Third Parties: Properly working up a commercial vehicle case involves investigating not only the actions of the owner of the tractor and the trailer, but also whether any third parties acted in a negligent manner, thereby causing or contributing to the incident. For example, if a tractor trailer load shifts, or was loaded in such a way that improper weight distribution contributed to the accident, whose responsibility was it to load the vehicle and secure the load? If the accident was caused by the vehicleÃ¢ÂÂs inability to stop in time, whose responsibility was it to maintain the braking system? In addition to the responsibilities of the owner and operator in that regard, was there a third party who was contracted to perform service?
If the brakes or steering failed to work properly, was a design or manufacturing defect to blame?
Design Elements: An often overlooked aspect of the proper investigation of a claim involving a commercial vehicle is whether a design flaw caused or contributed to the injuries. For example, commercial trailers are required by law to have an underride guard, which is typically a welded bar which extends from the back of the trailer downward to the bumper level of a car, so that in a collision the front end of the car absorbs the energy of the crash, rather than allowing the car to go underneath the trailer. In the absence of such a guard, the first impact of the vehicle with the trailer may be the passenger vehicle's windshield, with predictably serious results for the vehicle's occupants. Surprisingly, these guards are sometimes missing or, more frequently, either improperly designed, or damaged but not repaired properly, if at all.
Electronic Evidence: In these days, many forms of electronic evidence are available to a savvy lawyer who knows how to obtain it. Most commercial vehicles have a "black box" which records valuable data such as vehicle speed, braking efforts, and the like. Furthermore, many fleets use GPS to monitor their driver's locations. This information can be quite useful. For example, a tractor trailer driver, who wrecks because he has become fatigued from driving many hours longer than the law allows, may have the impulse to try to cover his tracks by making false entries in his log book for that day. Let's say, for example, that the driver entered in his log book that he had begun a journey northward from Charlotte, North Carolina, on the date of the accident. However, in the course of thoroughly investigating the claim, the lawyer obtains the company's GPS information for that date, and learns that the driver actually left Jacksonville, Florida the morning of the accident, and therefore covered more ground in less time than could legally be done. You now may be able to show that the driver was not merely negligent, but was operating in an illegal and reckless manner. This, of course, makes the case stronger.
Resources: Perhaps the most important distinction between a commercial vehicle case and a passenger auto case is the amount of resources required to properly build the case. In an auto accident, little or no investigation may be necessary beyond the investigating officer's conclusions which are set forth in the accident report. However, in a trucking case, a proper investigation often requires not only attorneys with the experience and know-how to properly investigate and prosecute the claim, but also a firm with the connections and financial resources to locate and retain the engineering and trucking authorities whose expertise is required to win the case and obtain the maximum possible recovery.
Because of the nature of these cases, it is important that the investigation be commenced as soon as possible. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in this position, we will be happy to discuss the matter with you without further obligation.