Because the laws of physics apply to trucking accidents, an accident involving an eighteen-wheeler or other large freight carrier, which can weigh up to 80,000 pounds when fully loaded, can result in catastrophic injury or death when it collides with a 3,000 passenger vehicle. Large truck crashes accounted for 5,350 fatalities and 133,000 injuries in 2001. There are more than three trucking accidents a minute where someone is hurt or killed in the United States.
Trucking accidents are not just car accidents with bigger vehicles and higher policy limits. The trucking industry is subject to specific risks and dangers and subject to hundreds of federal and state regulations that can create unique grounds for liability. A qualified Maryland trucking accident lawyer will be familiar with these regulations and how to preserve and gather important evidence to help you seek compensation.
Special Regulatory Framework
In 1935, Congress passed the Motor Carrier Act, which created the Bureau of Motor Carriers of the Interstate Commerce Commission (the “ICC”). The ICC has enacted a plethora of rules and regulations to help prevent trucking accidents referred to as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR). These rules and regulations provide evidence and legal theories for pursuing trucking cases that are not available in an ordinary auto accident case. Many of these rules and regulations are now part of Maryland licensing and monitoring requirements under state law. However, Maryland state law closely resembles the FMCSR with respect to intrastate trucking (trucks operating only in Maryland). The FMCSR continue to provide the standards that apply to all interstate trucking (trucking across state lines). A Maryland trucking accident lawyer will be familiar with these regulations and be able to help you determine the application of these rules and regulations to your case.
Elements of Liability
Generally, trucking accidents are governed by the law of negligence, as are other vehicular accidents. A negligence theory basically means that a person or entity may be liable for failing to exercise a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances, which causes injury to another. These elements break down as follows:
• Duty of Care: The defendant (i.e. driver, trucking company) is not liable unless he owes the victim a duty to exercise reasonable care. Because all drivers owe a duty of reasonable care to other drivers, passengers and pedestrians, this element is almost always met.
• Breach: The defendant must fail to exercise reasonable care in operating their truck resulting in a “breach” of their duty of care. A truck driver who exceeds the speed limit or does not get a certain minimum amount of rest may be considered to breach his duty to exercise ordinary care to avoid injury to another.
• Causation: The defendant’s breach of duty must actually cause the injuries suffered by the victim of the accident. Perhaps, the driver did not get enough sleep but drives perfectly when a passenger vehicle suddenly changes lanes without looking and causes the truck to collide with a third vehicle. The attorney for the driver, trucking company and/or insurance carriers may argue that the alleged fatigue of the driver was not a cause of the accident.
Causes of Trucking Accidents
Because of the size weight and length of commercial trucks, they pose unique risks not present in accidents that involve an ordinary passenger vehicle or risks that are compounded by factors that are often involved in other vehicular accidents. Maryland trucking accidents often involve the following:
• Jackknifing: Big rigs and eighteen-wheelers may jackknife especially when they are turning or braking suddenly. Amongst other things commercial trucks have a difficult time stopping. This is a unique risk posed by commercial trucks due to their length and weight distribution. When an accident results from a jackknifed vehicle the trucking company attorneys may argue that it was not caused by negligence of the driver. They will often argue the truck jackknifed as a result of unforeseeable slipperiness or an abrupt turn that was necessary to avoid a stalled vehicle.
• Wide Turns: Because of the length of commercial vehicles, they frequently must use two lanes of traffic to make a right turn to avoid hitting parked vehicles or the sidewalk with their rear wheels. Some courts find this sort of a wide turn is sufficient to establish a truck driver is negligent.
• Fatigue: Truck drivers are paid by the mile and are often overworked and fatigued. A truck driver may violate specific regulations governing how long he has been driving before he is involved in an accident. Many truck accidents occur because of fatigue of the driver who is paid to drive as far as he can as fast as he can. The Federal Highway Administration’s Driver Fatigue and Alertness Study reported that while most people require 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep per night truck drivers get only 4.8 hours of sleep per night.
• Improperly Secured Loads: When a truck comes to a sudden stop, the load carried by the truck can shift. A fully loaded truck can weigh 10-25 times more than a typical passenger vehicle. If a load is not adequately secured it can shift causing the truck to flip or the driver to lose control of the vehicle. Federal regulations require drivers to make sure their load is adequately secured. The regulations also require drivers to check the load regularly during transit. While it is not a defense to claim the shipper, manufacturer or distributor loaded the vehicle, this may mean that those who contributed in loading the vehicle are also potential defendants.
• Drug or Alcohol Use: Truck drivers struggling with long hours on the road and lack of sleep can be particularly tempted to use drugs which impair their ability to drive safely. A couple recent studies of 168 fatally injured truck drivers found that one or more drugs was detected in 67% of the fatally injured drivers and 33% had detectable blood concentrations of psychoactive drugs or alcohol.
While the truck driver will almost always be a defendant in a truck accident case, a Maryland truck accident lawyer will often name other defendants. Other defendants may include the trucking company, employees of the trucking company (i.e. maintenance personnel or those who load the vehicle) as well as others. Because the trucking or shipping company will often have “deeper pockets” than an individual driver will, a qualified Maryland trucking accident lawyer will often want to establish that the driver is an employee of the trucking or shipping company.
The trucking accident lawyer will attempt to show that an employment relationship exists. If such a relationship is found to exist, the employer can be held liable under a theory of “respondeat superior.” The trucking accident lawyer must show that the trucking or shipping company exercised a certain degree of control over the driver and that the accident occurred in the course of the driver’s employment. The trucking or shipping company lawyers may argue that the employee was an independent contractor. If the driver is an independent contractor, the trucking or shipping company may not be liable for the negligent acts of the driver. The degree of control and supervision exercised over the driver by the trucking and or shipping company will often be a key issue in such situations.
Preserving and Gathering Evidence
A qualified trucking accident lawyer will send a “preservation letter” as soon as possible. Most trucks have a black box that record various parameters that can assist in determining how a trucking accident occurred. It is similar in concept to a black box on an airplane. The evidence from this black box as well as logbooks can be critical evidence in a trucking accident case. Parties in a trucking accident are required to preserve evidence that could be relevant to a trucking accident if they have reason to believe the accident could result in litigation. A Maryland trucking accident lawyer will send a letter to the defendants putting them on notice of potential litigation and that the black box, log books and other evidence must be preserved. If this evidence is destroyed after receiving such notice, the court may grant a “spoliation instruction,” which essentially instructs the jury to assume the destroyed evidence contained information most favorable to the plaintiff.
Acting quickly to preserve evidence and comply with statutory filing deadlines is critical if you are involved in an accident under Maryland trucking accident law. A qualified Maryland trucking accident lawyer can make sure that filing deadlines are met and that a “preservation letter” is sent to any potential defendants. If you need a qualified Maryland trucking accident lawyer, click here.