Commercial Motor Vehicle Accidents
When an accident takes place between two motor vehicles, determining who is legally responsible for paying for damages and injuries—that is, determining liability—is always necessary.
In cases where commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) and passenger vehicles collide, those in the passenger vehicles have a higher likelihood of suffering severe injuries or death, because CMVs are usually much larger than passenger vehicles.
Determining liability in such cases can be quite complicated. However, it is especially critical to do so in order to ensure that the injured parties are made whole, to the best extent that the law can provide, when serious injuries or deaths occur. While severe damages such as a death or a loss of bodily function cannot truly be made whole, the law does provide for financial compensation. At McNeely Stephenson, we have the skills and experience to help struggling families after a crash involving a commercial motor vehicle such as a large truck, semi, tractor trailer or bus.
In Indiana for 2014, the most recent year for which official statistics are available, fatalities concerning CMVs totaled 131: 124 fatalities involved large trucks; 6 involved buses; and 1 involved an unnamed variety of commercial vehicle. In previous years, the proportions of vehicle types were similar, showing that the most risk you face on the roads in your passenger vehicle arises from large trucks. Unfortunately, the numbers show fatal and incapacitating-injury accidents with CMVs are on the rise in our state. From 2010 to 2014, the increase in fatalities averaged 4 percent a year, but the increase in incapacitating injuries averaged 15.7 percent a year. (2014 saw a total of 357 incapacitating CMV accidents.)
Possible Kinds of Liability Involving CMVs
The trucking industry has changed a lot over the years. The days of trucking companies staffed by employees went out the window when the industry was transformed by deregulation. These days, the driver behind the wheel of a truck could be an employee, an owner-operator who drives his or her own truck, or an independent driver hired to drive the company’s truck.
In the current regulatory environment, liability for an accident could fall upon a number of responsible parties. Theories and scenarios of liability may point the finger of blame at one or more of the following:
- The employer, when the driver is a regular employee of the trucking company. The accident would need to have happened when the driver was working “within the scope of his employment.”
- The employer, when the driver was hired negligently, meaning that the trucking company should have known that the driver was incompetent or discovered the driver was incompetent at some point and did not dismiss them.
- The business entity leasing the truck and driver. If the trucking company hires an owner-operator (an independent contractor who drives their own truck), and the owner-operator works exclusively for the trucking company, then the one doing the leasing/hiring is liable. However, these days owner-operators work for more than one trucking company, so in such cases the driver or owner-operator would be liable.
- Insurance companies for negligent hiring. Often, small companies rely on an insurance company to determine whether an applicant is incompetent (meaning, whether or not the driver is “insurable”). Thus, if an insurance company deems that a negligent driver is all right, it’s possible that the insurance company could be liable.
- The broker, or “middle man” between the shipper and the trucking company who arranges transportation. While the broker does not hire the driver, the broker can be liable for negligent hiring of a trucking company with a bad safety record. (Before hiring a trucking company, a broker must check, at minimum, the company’s safety evaluations and records.)
- The shipper, or the one who loaded the trailer. If the shipper improperly or negligently loads the trailer, or if they have ultimate control over the process of transporting the load, then the shipper can potentially be held liable.
- The driver, or owner-operator. When independent drivers (who do not own their own truck) or owner-operators (who do own their own truck) are moving a load, often liability shifts from the trucking carrier, the shipper, or the broker to the driver or owner-operator. Generally, if the driver is not an employee of the trucking company, then the driver shares in some of the liability of an accident. Drivers and owner-operators are responsible for a certain amount of maintenance and of checking the load and the truck for problems while in transit, another area that can create liability.
- A combination of liable parties, if driver fatigue is determined to be a factor. Federal regulations prohibit trucking companies from pressuring drivers, whether employees or independents, from driving beyond certain specified daily time limits. However, if the driver decides on their own to drive beyond the legal limits and then has an accident, then the driver could be found liable instead of the trucking company or other hiring entity.
- The maker of equipment that fails. If a part on the tractor or trailer is defective, causing a driver to lose control (such as defective brakes or steering), then the liability may lie with the company that manufactured the part.
- Other drivers on the road. Sometimes other drivers cause an accident, such as when they cut off a tractor-trailer. Large CMVs cannot maneuver or stop as quickly as smaller vehicles and can jackknife or lose control while attempting to avoid an accident.
Suppose the Driver’s Actions Were Intentional?
Even if the driver were an employee of the trucking company, if the actions causing the accident were intentional, the driver will generally be liable. Verifying intent often triggers punitive damages, meaning reckless actions or deliberate actions caused the damages and injuries in question. Punitive damages can greatly increase a damage award.
When it comes to injuries arising from a CMV accident, it is essential to identify as many defendants as possible in order to secure compensation for damages and injuries. In accidents involving CMVs or other commercial vehicles, a victim often needs experienced legal help.