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Who is liable in a commercial truck crash and why?

All too often in West Virginia, we see commercial trucks, also referred to as semi's or 18 wheelers, create dangerous situations for other motorists. When a commercial truck crashes, it can cause a tremendous amount of damage to other vehicles and serious injuries to other motorists and passengers. While truck drivers are sometimes at fault, the legal responsibility for these crashes is not always placed solely on the driver. The question is who are the potential responsible parties when a large commercial truck is involved in a collision that causes serious injury? The answer, as it turns out, depends on the conditions leading up to a crash.

"Respondeat Superior"

Often the party found to be liable for damages in a commercial truck accident lawsuit is the company that hired the truck driver. In personal injury law, there is a principle known as "respondeat superior," a Latin phrase that means "let the superior make answer". Basically, it means that the person who placed the negligent driver behind the wheel, or just simply trusted an unqualified person to operate dangerous equipment, should take the legal blame for the damage that person has caused.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that a shipping company hired a driver who had a history of motor vehicle collisions. In most cases, the company that hired the driver would be liable for a crash the driver had while he was driving the company's commercial truck. In general, the standard that must be met in order to sue the commercial driver's company is to prove that the driver was working on company time during the crash. However, laws regarding company liability in the event of a crash vary, and your state may not recognize vicarious liability in certain circumstances.

The Truck Manufacturer

It is possible that it was a malfunction of the truck's mechanics or vital parts that caused the crash. In such a case, it would be the truck manufacturer or parts maker that could be held liable for a commercial truck crash.

For example, if the latch of a truck's back-doors was broken, it may come unlatched while the truck was moving and spill its cargo onto the road. These situations caused damage to the cars behind the truck and could easily cause a multi-vehicle pile-up resulting in serious injury and even death if the contents of the truck were large and heavy enough. A truck accident could be caused by one of a wide variety of defects, the usual suspects in these cases are:

  • Defective tires
  • Brake failure
  • Faulty straps or other form of cargo restraint
  • Broken hydraulics
  • Malfunctioning steering (like loss of power steering)
  • Defective hitches
  • Broken headlights, brake lights, or turn signals
  • Defective anti-lock braking system (ABS), which stops a truck from jackknifing

Negligent Driver

Obviously, the actual driver of the truck is likely to take at least some part of liability for a crash. Unfortunately, while most truck drivers are experts at their profession, there are some who are simply irresponsible.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), large truck drivers had a higher rate of recorded crashes than any other type of driver in 2014 at a rate of 14 percent. Furthermore, there is a tragically large problem of distracted driving in America that truck drivers are not immune to. On the other hand, commercial truck drivers also have the lowest rates of DWI convictions at a rate of .3 percent. Although, the reason that commercial truck drivers have such low rates of drunk driving is likely due to the regulations that all commercial drivers must follow. These regulations are known as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) and mandate that drivers must:

  • Have a valid commercial vehicle driver's license (CDL)
  • Test negative on all required drug and alcohol tests
  • Pass annual driving record reviews
  • Conduct basic inspection of the driver's vehicle before embarking
  • Have the driver keep a sleep log that shows how many hours of sleep the receive each night on the road

If a commercial truck driver is involved in a motor vehicle accident and does not pass any of these criteria then he will, in almost every case, be held liable for a crash. Due to the lack of liquidable assets a truck driver has, many personal injury cases hold the driver only partly responsible for a crash.

Other Liable Parties

In some circumstances, though not as common, neither the truck driver, company, or manufacturer will be found to be liable for an accident. It is possible that another party created a dangerous condition on the road that caused the truck driver to crash.

For example, if another car cut in front of the commercial truck driver and forced him to swerve and crash, that driver would likely have the majority of the liability. Or if the roads were poorly maintained and that caused a tire on a commercial truck to blow out, it the local government responsible for maintaining that road might be held liable for the crash.

Every case is different, and the process is, to put it simply, complicated. If you're involved in a crash with a commercial truck, your best chance of understanding who is responsible for your damages is to contact our offices for a free consultation.

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