Trucking Accidents: Common Causes & Liability

Learn about the common causes of trucking accidents and who might be liable.

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If you are the victim of a trucking accident, the questions of who is responsible and what actually caused the accident are often much more complicated than in a simple traffic accident. There are many players involved, from the driver to the owner of the truck, and getting information about what went wrong often requires some industry know-how.

Understanding the common reasons for trucking accidents, and the relationships among the persons and entities connected to the truck, the trailer, and the load, will help you determine whether you have a valid claim and how you will present your case.

Truck Accident Statistics

Over the past two decades, the number of truck accidents has increased by 20%. According to the Federal Motor carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), in 2002, 4,897 individuals died and 130,000 people were injured in crashes that involved a large truck. And even though large trucks are only responsible for 3% of injury-causing motor vehicle accidents, trucking accidents typically cause much greater harm than ordinary traffic accidents due to the large size and heavy weight of most trucks.

Laws Governing Truck Accidents

Federal laws and regulations govern the trucking industry. These laws establish certain standards that trucking companies, owners, and drivers must meet, and often determine who is responsible for a trucking accident. The bulk of federal regulations dealing with the trucking industry can be found in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations. (To find and read federal regulations, see Nolo's Legal Research area.)

Agencies that regulate truck driving include the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Every state also has a department of transportation with its own set of trucking regulations.

Who Is Responsible?

When it comes to truck accidents, there is a web of players who may be responsible for a victim's injuries, including:

  • the truck's driver
  • the owner of the truck or trailer
  • the person or company that leased the truck or trailer from the owner
  • the manufacturer of the vehicle, tires, or other parts that may have contributed to the cause or severity of the accident, and
  • the shipper or loader of the truck's cargo (in cases involving improper loading).

The trucking, hauling, and leasing companies often argue among themselves over whose insurance will compensate the victim. For example, the truck company might claim that the accident was caused by defective brakes. In turn, the brake company might then point the finger at the leasing company, claiming that it failed to maintain the brakes in good working order.

Can Trucking Companies Avoid Liability?

In the past, trucking companies often tried to avoid liability for trucking accidents by creating distance between themselves and the driver, the vehicle, and the equipment. Here's how they did this:

The trucking company obtains the necessary permits to operate the truck. However, the company often does not own the tractor, trailer, or equipment used to haul the goods. Instead it leases (rents) the equipment, tractors, and trailers from the "owner/operator." The trucking company also does not directly employee the drivers. Instead, it hires them as independent contractors from the owner/operator.

The trucking company gives the owner/operator a "placard," which includes the name of the trucking company and its permit numbers. The placard is then affixed to the door of the tractor -- which makes it seem like the truck is owned by the named trucking company and the driver is an employee of the named trucking company.

If the truck is in an accident, and the trucking company is sued, it would argue that:

  • the driver was not the trucking company's employee, so the trucking company is not liable for driver error, or
  • the trucking company does not own the equipment, so it is not responsible for the operation, maintenance, repair, and inspections of the equipment.

Luckily, federal laws and regulations have put an end to these arguments. Under current federal law, any company owning a trucking permit is responsible for all accidents involving a truck that has its placard or name displayed on the vehicle. It doesn't matter what the lease says with the owner/operator or whether the driver is an employee or independent contractor.

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by: Thomas Fazioli

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