Driver and Company Liability for Commercial Truck Accidents

After a truck accident, is the driver on the legal hook, or is an employer or business financially responsible?

By , Attorney · Pepperdine Caruso School of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5,788 people were killed and an estimated 154,993 others were injured in crashes involving large trucks in 2021. Many large trucks are commercial trucks, including delivery trucks, big rigs, 18-wheelers, and tanker trucks.

If you've been injured in an accident involving a commercial truck, you need to know:

  • the truck driver's employer and others might be on the hook for your losses, and
  • state and federal regulations might help you prove the driver was at fault for the accident.

Who Is Legally Responsible for a Trucking Accident?

Accidents involving commercial trucks are much more complicated than a typical car accident claim. In a typical two-car accident case, you might be able to sue the at-fault driver and file a claim with an insurance company.

In a commercial truck accident, you'll probably be able to file claims against more people and companies, including the:

  • truck driver
  • truck driver's employer
  • owner of the truck
  • cargo owner and loader, and
  • truck maintenance company.

Not all commercial truck accidents involve all of these entities. For example, some truck drivers are independent contractors who own their own big rigs. (See below for more on employers and independent contractors.)

Truck Driver Liability

Commercial truck accidents happen for all kinds of reasons. Some accidents are caused by equipment failures, some are caused by faulty road designs or weather conditions, and some accidents are caused by driver errors. For example, a truck driver might speed to get to the next truck stop, make an unsafe lane change, or rear-end a car stopped in traffic. Drivers who are tired or under the influence of drugs or alcohol are more likely to make mistakes and cause accidents.

If the trucker who hit you was negligent (careless), you can bring an injury-related insurance claim or lawsuit against the driver after the accident. You'll also want to look into other potentially liable parties, like the truck driver's employer.

After any vehicle accident, a person who's suffered an injury or damage to their car can send a demand letter asking for compensation. What you (or your attorney) say in the letter will depend on the details of your accident, but there are some demand-letter basics you should make sure to keep in mind. You can check out a sample demand letter for an accident in which the victim suffered serious injuries.

Is the Truck Driver's Employer Liable?

A truck driver's employer can be responsible for an accident caused by a truck driver under a legal theory called respondeat superior, meaning "let the master answer." Under this theory, an employer can be liable for an employee's actions if the employee was working at the time of the accident for the employer's benefit. But trucking companies often try to avoid liability by arguing that the driver is an independent contractor and not an employee or that the driver wasn't working at the time of the accident.

Let's take a closer look at these arguments

Is the Driver an Employee or Independent Contractor?

Laws vary from state to state, but in order to show that a driver is an employee of the trucking company and not an owner-operator of a rig, you'll need to focus on how much control the company has over the trucker's schedule and ability to enter into contracts with other trucking companies. You'll also want to look at how the trucking company pays the driver and who's responsible for paying for the truck's registration, permit, and insurance.

Courts and insurance companies will ask these questions and more to decide how much liability to assign to the driver and the trucking company.

For example, if a truck driver uses his own truck, buys his own gas, pays for his own liability insurance coverage, assumes the cost of repairs, gets paid on a "per route" basis, and receives no benefits from the trucking company, the driver is probably an independent contractor. But if the trucking company leases the truck from the driver, obtains the necessary permits, and controls the driver's routes, the company will probably be responsible for accidents involving the truck.

When Are Drivers Acting Within the Scope of Employment?

For a trucking company to be liable, the truck driver has to be an employee who was working at the time of an accident for the employer's benefit (or "acting within the scope of employment"). Courts tend to look at:

  • the intent of the employee at the time of the accident
  • the nature, time, and place of the employee's conduct
  • the type of work the employee was hired to do
  • incidental acts the employer should reasonably expect an employee to do, and
  • the amount of freedom an employee typically has in performing duties.

For example, if a truck driver rear-ends you while making a delivery, the driver's employer will probably be liable for your accident-related losses because the truck driver was acting "within the scope of employment" at the time of the accident. But let's say a truck driver leaves work early to go to a basketball game and hits you outside of the stadium. Here, the driver's employer will argue that the company isn't liable for the driver's negligence because the driver wasn't acting "within the scope of employment" at the time of the accident.

How Does Liability Work for Self-Driving Trucks?

So-called "autonomous vehicles" are becoming more common. If you're in an accident with a self-driving truck, you'll need to understand how that affects your legal options. If the vehicle's self-driving computer system caused (or contributed to) the accident, then you may be able to pursue a product liability case. For example, a company could be liable if it contributed to an accident by writing faulty software, or by failing to properly manufacture or install the system's hardware.

In many ways, though, autonomous vehicle crashes involve the same legal rules as any other truck accident:

  • A self-driving truck will probably have a human on board who's responsible for taking over if there's a malfunction. This person (and their employer) could be liable if their negligence helped cause an accident.
  • You and your attorney will need to decide if you have legal claims against the company that owns the truck, or against any other business responsible for the vehicle and its cargo.

How Do Multiple Defendants Affect a Truck Accident Lawsuit?

When you (the "plaintiff") file a personal injury lawsuit against more than one person or entity (the "defendants"), the defendants might be equally responsible for your losses (damages), or they might only be responsible for the portion of your damages they caused.

For example, a tired driver might share partial responsibility for an accident, along with the manufacturer of faulty tires. You can sue the driver (or the driver's employer), as well as the tire manufacturer. The defendants will have to sort out their share of fault to reach a settlement or let the jury decide at trial.

What If the Driver's Acts Were Intentional?

Generally, employers aren't liable for intentional torts (like assaults) committed by employees. Employees are typically not acting "within the scope of employment" when they punch customers in the face, for example, or steal credit card information.

So, if a truck driver slams into you because you are sleeping with the truck driver's spouse, the trucking company probably isn't liable for the truck driver's actions.

State and Federal Trucking Regulations

Truck drivers, owners, and manufacturers must comply with state and federal regulations. Regulators control how much weight a rig can haul, how long a driver can go without rest, and many other aspects of the trucking industry.

When a commercial truck is involved in an accident, there is a good chance that a state, federal, or local law was violated. Proving a violation of law greatly increases an injured person's chances of winning an insurance settlement or in court.

State and federal regulations typically require truck drivers and owners to have more insurance than non-commercial drivers. Defendants who have higher insurance policy limits have deeper pockets are more likely to be able to compensate you for the full value of your claim.

Talk to a Lawyer

Commercial truck accidents are more complicated than the average car accident case. You might be able to handle your case yourself, but you could end up short-changing yourself if you do. A good personal injury attorney can help you decide if a lawsuit makes sense. They should also be able to assist you with everything from making an insurance claim, to negotiating a settlement, to making your best case in court.

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