According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 59 large trucks involved in fatal traffic accidents in Iowa in 2013. Many more were involved in non-fatal wrecks. Given the size and weight of large trucks, the collisions tend to cause serious damage and catastrophic if not fatal injuries – most often to the occupants of the other vehicles, not the truck driver. Victims who plan to file a lawsuit need to establish fault for the truck accident.
Understanding the Complexities of Truck Accident Cases
While you may not need an attorney for a minor car accident, you will almost always require legal help after a serious truck accident. Truck accident cases are quite different from regular car accident cases in several important ways and they are much more complex.
- Extensive damages – First, the damages and injuries in truck accidents are usually higher and more serious than a lot of car accidents. Serious injuries means the dollar value of your case will be high, which in turn means the truck company’s insurer may be looking for ways to minimize their payout to you. When your damages are extensive, you’ll need to be extra cautious to factor all of your expenses and future medical needs into your claim.
- Federal regulations – Another factor that makes truck accident cases so complex is the existence of federal regulations by which truck carriers and drivers must abide. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) provides specific rules and procedures that commercial drivers have to follow, such as a cap on their driving hours and the frequency of scheduled maintenance checks. Violating a regulation and subsequently causing an accident could apportion fault for the accident on the driver or carrier. But in order to identify and prove the carrier is at fault, you have to be well-versed in trucking regulations – something with which trucking companies, the FMCSA, and truck accident attorneys are familiar.
- Highly disputed – Lastly, truck accident claims can quickly become complicated because the truck company or its insurer has attorneys to refute or dispute the claims, or at least diligently try to reduce the settlement amounts. It’s difficult for the average Joe or Jane (who’s suffering from major injuries, no less) to negotiate or battle formidable truck company attorneys. This is why you should ensure you have an established and experienced lawyer who handles truck accidents help with your case.
Who can be held liable for a truck accident?
Establishing liability is one of the first tasks you and your attorney will have to address as you begin looking for ways to recover your damages. Which party can be held legally accountable for the damages depends on the circumstances of the accident and can include more than just the truck driver.
For example, if there was a co-driver in the truck and he contributed to the accident, he or his employer may be named as a defendant. Other possible parties that might be at fault for a truck accident include the following.
- A repair shop or maintenance crew
- A truck manufacturer or the manufacturer of one of the truck’s parts
- A company that loaded the cargo
- An inspector that performs the annual fleet inspections
- The truck company
It’s also important to understand the concept of vicarious liability. This legal model provides that companies are generally held liable for the actions of their employees when they are performing work-related tasks during the course of their employment.
So, in a case where the truck driver was at fault, e.g., he was texting while driving or didn’t check his poorly loaded cargo prior to his trip, his employer, the carrier, would be named as defendant and held liable for the damages. In fact, even drivers who are independent contractors are considered statutory employees under the FMCSA’s 49 C.F.R. § 390.5.
Preserving Key Evidence
It takes substantial and significant evidence to prove liability in a truck accident case. As soon as practicable after the accident, speak to an attorney to discuss what evidence you can start gathering.
One of the first things your attorney will do is send a letter of spoliation to the truck company. This letter essentially informs the carrier that a case is pending, explains which evidence the company must preserve, and reminds them of the consequences of illegally destroying evidence. The FMCSA provides specific recordkeeping requirements. Below are a few examples.
- Logbooks – A driver’s logbook contains detailed entries about the hours and miles a driver keeps. Carriers must keep the records for six months.
- Maintenance – Carriers must also keep records of their fleet’s inspections, repairs, and maintenance. They have to keep certain records for one year and for six months after the vehicle leaves their control. Other records are kept for a shorter period of time, such as a driver vehicle inspection report, which they must keep for three months.
- Driver history – Carriers have to keep each driver’s qualification file on record for three years after the course of the driver’s employment has ended. The file should contain a record of the driver’s safety performance history, the employment application, his/her medical exams, a list of any violations, certificates of training and driving eligibility, and any information the company has received from the employee’s prior employers, amongst other key pieces of information.
In many truck accident cases, it’s information that we find in the truck company records that winds up proving the company’s liability. For example, we might find in the driver’s logbook that he exceeded the allowable amount of driving hours in a 24-hour period, or that he had a disqualifying medical condition yet was allowed to continue driving. Without the preservation of these records, the victim’s case may be unsuccessful.
Collecting Evidence to Prove Liability
There are two types of evidence that is required for a truck accident case. In order to win your claim, you’ll need 1) evidence to prove the extent of your injuries and damages, and 2) evidence that proves the other party’s liability. Your attorney can provide you with a detailed list that’s specific to your case, but below are some of the items that are usually very helpful in addition to the records obtained from the carrier.
- Your medical records and evidence of your lost wages. A pain diary may also be helpful in these cases to document the effects of the accident and your injuries on your everyday life and well-being.
- Photos and videos of accident scene (In some cases, your lawyer may be able to obtain footage of the accident from traffic cameras, nearby surveillance footage, or subpoenaed footage of the truck driver’s cab cam.)
- Eyewitness contact information
- The truck’s “black box,” or it's electronic control module (ECM). A truck’s ECM records useful information that can help identify and prove liability, such as the truck’s speed, throttle position, brake and pedal application, and clutch status. The black box contains information that shows what the driver was doing at the time the crash occurred, such as changes in velocity, total driving time, and maximum recorded speed.
- Testimony from an accident reconstructionist. When liability is disputed, our firm will sometimes enlist in the help of field experts such as accident reconstructionists to provide testimony. This specialist can use information about the accident to electronically reconstruct the crash and identify fault.
Actionable Steps to Take after Your Truck Accident
If you or your loved one has been involved in a truck accident, tending to your medical needs is paramount. After your condition has stabilized, call your insurance company to report the accident or have somebody do this on your behalf. However, don’t give adjusters any recorded statements until you’ve spoken with a lawyer. This is to protect your best interests.
If you’re able, you can start collecting evidence to support your case, including all your medical bills and receipts. You can also start an injury journal to document the progress of your injuries and how they are affecting your daily life.
It’s best to consult a reputable personal injury firm in your state to discuss your next steps. Your lawyer can help establish fault and liability, file the necessary paperwork, and advise you of how to best move forward to secure a settlement for the expenses and losses you’ve suffered. To set up a consultation with an accident lawyer in Des Moines, call Walker, Billingsley & Bair today at 515-440-2852 or fill out our contact form.