Determining Liability in Truck Accidents: Who Can Be Held Accountable?

Elliott M. BucknerFebruary 9, 2021

Who Is Liable In a Truck Accident? 

Truck accidents might seem like a terrifying but rare nightmare, but they are shockingly common, even here in Virginia. Due to the sheer size and weight of large commercial trucks, they tend to cause extensive damage when they collide with other vehicles. 

If you or a loved one were injured or killed in a Virginia trucking accident, you deserve justice; if your accident was the result of the negligence of someone involved with the semi-truck, you can and should hold them accountable for the damages by filing a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit. But determining who is liable in a truck accident may be more difficult than you’d think. 

Understanding Who is Liable in a Truck Accident

In a typical car accident, those involved typically know who is liable, and it’s fairly easy to hold them accountable because they own their vehicle and personally have it insured. 

Truck accident cases are often complex, however. Identifying the liable party is not as simple. This is due, in part, to the number of liable parties potentially involved. 

Unlike passenger vehicles, semi-trailer trucks are typically not owned by the driver. Often, there are a number of different entities responsible for truck safety, maintenance, and operation, making these types of cases more difficult to litigate. 

In many cases, multiple parties are partially at fault for a trucking accident, many of whom were not even present at the time of the collision. Depending on the circumstances, those liable for your accident may include: 

  • The Truck Driver
  • The Trucking Company/Employer of the Truck Driver
  • Loading Companies 
  • Shipping Companies
  • Truck Parts Manufacturers

Determining liability in trucking accidents in Virginia is made even more complex by the many federal regulations that govern trucking—like requirements around maintenance and hours logged—and gathering evidence to prove your case. That’s why it’s so important for victims of truck accidents to work with attorneys experienced in commercial vehicle accident cases like those at our Virginia Beach and Richmond law offices. 

When Truck Drivers Are Liable in a Truck Accident

When it comes to determining liability in a truck accident, the most obvious answer will be the truck driver, and it would be strange for no liability to be placed on him or her. 

Like all motor vehicles, large semi-trailer trucks are operated by ordinary people and are therefore subject to human error. Though truck drivers receive extensive training and must carry a special commercial driver’s license (CDL), this does not mean they are immune to making mistakes or negligence. 

In fact, truck driver error is one of the most common causes of truck accidents. Often, truck driver error can be attributed to various other factors, one or more of which may point to a secondary liable party.

A truck driver may be liable for an accident if any of the following led to the collision:

  • Driver fatigue
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol/drugs
  • Distracted driving, including eating while driving or cellphone use
  • Reckless driving, speeding, tailgating, or similar behavior
  • Failure to stop at red lights and/or stop signs
  • Failure to anticipate changing road conditions or roadway hazards
  • Unsafe speeds in a construction zone
  • A disability or medical condition that rendered the driver unfit to operate the vehicle
  • Violation of FMCSA’s “hours of service” rule/failure to take required breaks
  • Unsafe driving maneuvers, such as dangerous lane changes or turns

What Leads to Truck Driver Negligence? 

As noted above, there are innumerable circumstances that can lead to truck driver error and an accident, but many of these errors may occur as a result of outside factors. 

For example, trucking companies incentivize their drivers to put in long hours and long work weeks by paying by the mile and offering bonuses for meeting high mileage quotas. If a trucking company pressures its drivers to meet unrealistic quotas, truck drivers may fail to take mandated breaks and continue driving even while fatigued. In such instances, both the truck driver and the trucking company may be partially at fault for a resulting accident. 

In many truck accidents, there are multiple parties that should be held accountable for the injuries and damages incurred and even for the truck driver’s negligence. If you or a loved one were involved in a truck accident in Virginia, the Richmond and Virginia Beach-based attorneys of Breit Cantor can help you navigate the complex conversations of liability so that all parties are held accountable. 

When Trucking Companies Are Liable in a Truck Accident

While a representative from the trucking companies behind big-rigs can’t be present in every vehicle at all times, they still hold responsibility for the truck, its driver, and the damages they might incur. 

If the company’s policies, expectations, or negligence were contributing factors in your trucking accident, they can be held accountable. Unfortunately, implicating trucking companies in commercial vehicle accidents can be difficult, requiring extensive evidence and knowledge of the laws around trucking. That’s why it’s important to contact an experienced truck accident lawyer like those at Breit Cantor who can help determine cause and liability.

Trucking Companies Are Held Accountable for Their Drivers

The companies that employ truck drivers are required to make sure the drivers they hire are qualified and competent. This can include things like conducting background checks, offering truck driver training, and regularly scheduling random drug and alcohol screenings for drivers. Truck drivers must be appropriately supervised and subject to disciplinary action if they are found to be in violation of company policy or state/federal law. 

Unfortunately, some trucking companies fail to meet these requirements. In fact, many of these companies prioritize profits over public safety, causing them to allow or even encourage truck drivers to travel long distances without taking breaks. 

Other trucking companies may fail to conduct proper background checks, causing them to hire unqualified drivers or those that have a history of substance abuse. Failing to provide proper supervisor training can also lead to further issues with a trucking company’s drivers.

This kind of case is particularly relevant when it comes to truck driver fatigue. As mentioned above, truck driver fatigue contributes significantly to many truck accidents, and sometimes the blame for that fatigue could fall upon the trucker’s parent company or manager. When unreasonable schedules are demanded of truckers, the company is the one to blame for not caring about the wellbeing of their employees and, by extension, all motorists on the road. 

Trucking companies must abide by state and federal regulations; they cannot pressure truck drivers to violate the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) hours of service rule, which governs how many hours a truck driver can drive before he/she must take a break. If the trucking company disregards these federal regulations and encourages employees to work longer hours, they are intentionally endangering the lives of the drivers and others on the road and should therefore be held accountable for the damages incurred. 

Trucking Companies Must Make Sure Their Trucks Are Safe 

There are federal regulations that govern requirements around truck maintenance. That’s because big-rigs and tractor-trailers are large and complicated vehicles that, without proper maintenance, become very dangerous. Proper maintenance helps prevent problems like defective brakes and worn tires that lead to hundreds of truck accidents every year. If appropriate repair work is not completed, equipment and systems on the truck could fail without warning and cause the trucker to lose control of the vehicle.

Most truck drivers do not perform any actual maintenance on their rigs. Instead, a maintenance crew is often in charge of repairing and replacing parts on each truck in the company’s fleet. If the trucking company in question owns its own trucks, it is responsible for performing routine truck maintenance. This allows the company to find and address any issues, such as bald tires or worn out brake pads, before they can lead to serious accidents. 

If the trucking company leases its trucks from another business, the business that owns the truck is typically responsible for this maintenance. Failing to perform proper truck maintenance can cause a company to be liable for any resulting accidents and injuries.

When Loading Companies Are Liable in a Truck Accident

When it comes to determining liability in truck accidents, truck accident lawyers in Virginia must consider every party that impacted the truck, driver, or their route, including loading companies who loaded the cargo onto the truck. 

Industry regulations govern everything from weight restrictions to proper cargo loading and securing; failing to abide by these regulations can lead to devastating accidents. Load crews should know how to stack cargo in a trailer without going over the weight limit or disturbing the balance of the trailer. Once again, a parent company could be liable for not enforcing safe practices or offering training.

In some cases, cargo may be improperly loaded onto trucks, leading to an imbalance that makes the truck more likely to overturn or jackknife. Overloaded trucks are more likely to cause a truck accident, either due to tipping over while in motion or because the extra weight can tax and damage the brake systems. 

The company responsible for loading cargo onto the truck may be liable if:

  • Cargo was exposed, unsecured, or loose
  • The truck was overloaded, causing it to flip over or “fishtail” (swerve from side-to-side)
  • Cargo fell from the truck onto the roadway during transit
  • An unqualified individual was allowed to load or unload cargo
  • The loading company did not keep adequate records

This list is not comprehensive; if cargo is not properly loaded or unloaded, anyone from the shipment owner to the cargo loader to the transporter may be liable for resulting accidents, damages, or injuries. 

When Shipping Companies Are Liable for Contractors in a Truck Accident

Usually, a company is not liable for the negligence committed by independent contractors who perform work for the company. However, in situations where the shipping company engages an independent contractor who is unfit to haul its goods, liability may rest with the shipper on the theory of negligent hiring. 

Section 411 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts states that an employer is “liable for physical harm to third persons caused by his failure to exercise reasonable care to employ a competent and careful contractor…to do work which will involve a risk of physical harm unless it is skillfully and carefully done.”

Here’s an example that indicates the kind of situation in which a shipping company might be responsible for its contractors: 

A, a builder, employs B, a teamster, to haul material through the streets from a nearby railway station to the place where A is building a house. A knows that B’s trucks are old and in bad condition and that B habitually employs inexperienced and inattentive drivers. C is run over by a truck carrying A’s material and driven by one of B’s employees. A is subject to liability to C if the accident is due either to the bad condition of the truck or inexperience or inattention of the driver.

This is applicable to the real world—and possibly your case—as indicated by the case Jones v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., 558 F. Supp2d. 630 (W.D. Va., 2008). Restatement Second of Torts Section 411 and this example were cited by the court in to prove that the plaintiff had presented a valid claim against the shipper for negligent hiring in a tractor-trailer collision case. 

The court went on to state that a shipper may have liability for negligent hiring where the work to be performed by the independent contractor involves a risk of physical harm unless it is skillfully and carefully done. The Court stated “that the operation of a tractor-trailer upon the public highway does involve such a risk of physical harm. The likelihood of this risk is reflected in the federal government’s licensing requirements to ensure that the commercial truck drivers have the necessary skills to operate a tractor-trailer.”

What Laws Determine if a Shipping Company is Responsible for a Truck Accident?

If the shipper is negligent in loading the tractor-trailer, and the improperly loaded vehicle contributes to the crash, they can be held liable. This is evident in Dill v. Gamble Asphalt, 594 S.W. 2d 719 (Tenn. Ct. App 1979), in which the court held that, despite the hiring of an independent contractor to transport asphalt, the shipper still had a duty to refrain from overloading the trucks, and was therefore liable to the plaintiff who was innocently injured in a truck collision when the truck was unable to stop as a result of its excess weight.

Another theory to find liability on the shipper may be found in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (“FMCSR”). FMCSR Section 390.13 states that “no person shall aid, abet, encourage or require a motor carrier or its employees to violate the rules of this chapter”. 

In situations where the shipper regularly overloads the motor carrier’s trucks with its material, for example in excess of the 80,000 pound limit for travel on interstate highways, when the shipper knows or reasonably should know that the motor carrier is going to use the interstate highways to reach its destinations, then it may be argued that the shipper has violated FMCSR Section 390.13 and is therefore liable to innocent victims injured as a result of the overloaded truck.

The trial lawyer for the innocent victim of a tractor-trailer collision should not overlook the potential liability of the shipper, as well as that of the motor carrier and its driver.

When Truck Parts Manufacturers Are Liable in a Truck Accident

No personal injury claim should entirely overlook the possibility that a truck part manufacturer could be partially responsible when determining who is liable in a truck accident. 

As in other types of motor vehicle accidents, defective parts play a role in numerous truck accidents every year. Even one small design defect in a commercial vehicle can lead to a catastrophic or even deadly accident. 

If you or your loved one was involved in a truck accident caused by a failed part, the company responsible for conducting truck maintenance may be responsible. However, if the part that failed is known to be defective or has been recalled, the manufacturer could be liable.

Big-rigs are massive, complex vehicles, which means there’s a lot of parts both large and small that could be to blame in an accident. Some of the most common defective truck parts include: 

  • Tire defects, which can lead to common blowouts
  • Defective brakes, which lead to front-end collisions
  • Weak load straps that turn cargo onto the road
  • Cab and trailer coupling systems that cause jackknifing or even a separation of cab and trailer
  • Ineffective locks that can cause cargo to tumble out of the truck
  • Failed power steering

Parts that are defective and never recalled may be the sole reason for a crash. It’s the responsibility of both the manufacturing company to communicate these defaults and issue recalls and the trucking companies to pay attention to these recalls and remove faulty parts. If either of these parties fails to address these defective truck parts, they can be held accountable for the accidents those parts cause.

Although taking on manufacturing companies can be a difficult legal feat, the likelihood of receiving a maximized recovery amount will increase due to typically larger insurance policies or company funds available to pay compensation.

Turn to Breit Cantor for Experienced Trucking Accident Lawyers

Our Richmond and Virginia Beach personal injury lawyers focus much of our practice on upholding the rights of those wrongfully injured in truck accidents. If you need trustworthy yet tenacious legal representation in Virginia, do not hesitate to contact us to learn about our legal services. You can also browse our recent case results and testimonials to gain some insight as to what our attorneys can and have done for our clients.

Understanding who is liable in your truck accident is the first step in your case, and our Virginia attorneys are prepared to gather this evidence and everything else necessary to help you win your case and receive the compensation you deserve.

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