Trucking accidents are often caused by mechanical failures -- the two biggest culprits being brake failures and defective tires. In fact, a recent study sponsored by Department of Transportation (DOT) found that 29.4% of all large truck crashes involved brake failure, brakes out of adjustment, or other brake-related issues.
If you've been injured in a truck accident, learning about the common causes of brake and tire failure and who might be responsible will help you determine whether you have a valid claim and who to sue. (To learn more about trucking accidents, including how to get information and inspection reports about the accident, read Nolo's articles Trucking Accidents: Common Causes & Liability and Trucking Accidents Caused by Driver Error.)
Defective Brakes: Who is to Blame?
When brakes malfunction, blame may be placed on a variety of parties (individually or in combination), including:
- the driver
- the company that loaded the truck
- the party responsible for maintaining the brakes (often the owner-operator), and
- the manufacturer of the brakes.
The trucking, hauling, and leasing companies often argue among themselves over whose insurance is going to compensate the victim. For example, the trucking company might claim that the accident was caused by defective brakes. The brake company might then point the finger at the leasing company, claiming that it failed to maintain the brakes in good working order.
Here's a rundown of why each party might be responsible.
The Brake Manufacturer
The federal government has imposed strict regulations on the safety of truck braking systems. A truck must be able to:
- develop a certain braking force (based on a percentage of the truck's weight)
- decelerate to a stop from 20 miles per hour at a rate specific to its size, and
- meet the automatic brake adjustment system requirements.
If truck brakes do not meet these federal standards, you may have a claim against the manufacturer. Usually these claims come in two forms: (1) the manufacturer did not design the brakes properly or (2) the brakes were correctly designed, but some defect occurred in the manufacturing process. These types of cases are called product liability cases. (To learn more about product liability cases, see Nolo's Product Liability FAQ.)
Federal brake recalls. In some cases, the federal government has already determined that certain types of brakes or brake parts are defective. When this happens, the government requires brake manufacturers to recall the defective brakes or parts. A brake recall is powerful evidence that those particular brakes are dangerous. You may have a claim against the manufacturer (for making the defective brakes) and the truck owner (if the manufacturer notified the owner of the defect and the owner never corrected it). To determine if a particular braking system was recalled, contact a trucking accident attorney or search the DOT recall website at www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/recalls.
Drivers and Trucking Companies
Sometimes actions taken by the driver or trucking company, or negligent inaction, causes brakes to fail.
Depowering the front brakes. Some owner-operator truck drivers deliberately unhook or depower the front brakes on the truck and rely only upon the brakes of the trailer and downshifting to stop or slow the vehicle. They do this in order to minimize the expense of tire and brake wear and replacement costs.
Improper brake setting and failure to maintain brakes. Federal regulations require that commercial trucking companies keep maintenance records demonstrating that truck maintenance has been performed according to schedule. In addition, every driver is required to perform and complete a daily pre-trip inspection report of the condition of the tractor and trailer equipment. These required inspections include:
- checking the brake shoes to ensure they function properly and do not have missing or broken mechanical components
- checking for loose brake components, and
- listening for air leaks in the brake chamber, which would indicate problems with the brake system.
Improper loading. If the truck load is not evenly distributed, the brakes may overheat and malfunction.
Truck Accidents Caused by Tire Problems
We have all seen the debris: long, heavy strips of tire littering the roadway after a semi truck has a blowout. The most common causes of tire failure follow.
Defective tires. This may happen because the tire manufacturer sold a defective truck tire. As with brakes, in some cases defective tires are recalled. To find out if the truck tires were recalled, check with the Department of Transportation -- it maintains the records of all recalled tires. You can find this information at the DOT's website at www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/recalls.
Failure to maintain tires. Sometimes a trucking company does not maintain the tires. For example, air brakes -- the most common type of brakes used in large trucks -- can only take so much heat. A full stop at 60 mph raises the brake drum temperature to about 600 degrees. That is the limit for safe operation. If the brakes aren't properly set or maintained, the brakes overheat and may malfunction.
Other common maintenance mistakes made by trucking companies include:
- allowing drivers to use tires that fail to meet the minimum DOT tread depth requirement
- mounting mismatched tire sizes or pairing tires with significantly different wear, and
- mixing bias and radial tires on the same axle.
Failure to perform pre-trip tire inspections. Sometimes a trucking accident is caused by a failed tire that the driver should have noticed in the required pre-trip inspection of the truck. Improper tire pressure -- either too little or too much -- can lead to deterioration and eventual catastrophic failure. A tire that is worn or damaged may fail as a blowout and result in loss of control of the vehicle. The principal indicators of deterioration are tread wear, tread and sidewall damage, and air leakage.
Often companies that fail to inspect or maintain the braking systems on their vehicles also fail to inspect the tires. This can lead to multiple mechanical problems that cause a trucking accident. Be sure to explore all possible causes of the accident.
Because the web of players in the trucking industry can be complicated and getting information from the right sources may require some industry know-how, you may want to get advice or representation from a lawyer.
For help on choosing a good truck accident lawyer, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. Or, you can go straight to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area (click "Types of Cases" and "Work History" to learn about a lawyer's experience with truck accidents).
To find out how to make the best case for yourself and win your personal injury claim, read How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).