Who Can Be Held Liable for a Truck Accident?

Elliott M. BucknerNovember 29, 2017

Determining Liability in Semi-Trailer Truck Accidents

Though many people don’t realize it, truck accidents are relatively common. In 2017, there were 2,306 crashes involving large trucks in Virginia, according to the Virginia Highway Safety Office and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Due to the sheer size and weight of large commercial trucks, they tend to cause extensive damage when they collide with other vehicles. In fact, of the 2,000+ truck accidents that occurred last year on Virginia highways and roads, over 800 resulted in injuries and 45 were fatal.

Injured individuals and the families of people killed in truck accidents can pursue legal action by filing a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit. However, truck accident cases are often much more complex to pursue. This is due, in part, to the number of liable parties involved. Unlike passenger vehicles, such as personal cars and motorcycles, 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 somewhat more difficult to litigate. In many cases, multiple parties are partially at fault for the accident.

Truck Drivers

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 acting negligently. 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

These are just some examples of how truck driver error can lead to an accident. As previously mentioned, many of these errors may occur as a result of outside factors. For example, if a trucking company pressures its drivers to meet unrealistic quotas in short amounts of time, truck drivers may fail to take mandated breaks and instead 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.

Trucking Companies

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. Furthermore, trucking companies must abide by state and federal regulations as well. 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.

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.

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

Loading Companies

In some cases, cargo may be improperly loaded onto trucks. Industry regulations govern everything from weight restrictions to proper cargo loading and securing. Failing to abide by these regulations can lead to devastating accidents.

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 and/or damages.

Truck Parts Manufacturers

As in other types of motor vehicle accidents, defective parts play a role in numerous truck accidents. Tire blowouts are a fairly common problem with large semi-trailer trucks, while faulty mechanical parts—such as failed power steering or brakes—lead to serious collisions. 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.

What to Do If You Are Involved in a Truck Accident

Immediately following the accident, it is crucial that you seek medical attention. Most semi-trailer truck accidents result in devastating injuries and the most important thing is that you receive the emergency treatment and ongoing care you need. If you are able to, get the truck driver’s information, as well as the contact information for the trucking company. Do not worry about who is liable for the accident. Proving fault is often very complex and usually requires the assistance of trucking industry experts and accident reconstruction specialists. Your attorney should be able to work with these and other professionals who can help determine who is liable for the accident and your resulting damages.

The statute of limitations for motor vehicle accidents, or time you have to file a claim, is two years from the date of the accident. Contact our Virginia Beach truck accident lawyers to schedule a free case evaluation today.


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