Who is liable in a truck accident?

Although any traffic accident can lead to serious injury or death, those involving large trucks are particularly deadly. According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), there were 4,119 people killed in large truck accidents in 2019, and most of them were in passenger vehicles. About 67 percent were in smaller vehicles, and another 15 percent were pedestrians or riding on bicycles or motorcycles. These disproportionate numbers are mostly due to large trucks being much heavier and harder to stop than passenger vehicles. A truck can simply do more damage to a car than the other way around. 

Because of the unusually large danger posed by trucks and commercial vehicles, there are many strict federal regulations about how trucks are operated. For example, tractor-trailer drivers are required to have a rest period after so many hours of driving and have strict limits on how many hours they can drive in a period of time.

But despite the many precautions in place to prevent large truck accidents, they do still sometimes happen, and when they do, occupants in passenger vehicles are more likely to be hurt or killed. If you’ve been injured in a truck accident, you may be wondering how to pay your medical bills and other expenses. Here are some frequently asked questions about truck accidents, fault, and liability:

How Is Fault In A Truck Accident Determined?

As with other types of auto accidents in North Carolina, in order to collect damages after an accident with a large truck, you will need to prove the truck driver was at fault. It’s important to understand that fault and liability are two different things, and we’ll talk about other parties besides the driver who may be liable a little later, but for now, let’s discuss proving fault.

North Carolina uses something called contributory negligence statutes for determining damages in an auto accident case. What this means is that if the victim is found to be partly at fault, even by as little as one percent, they are not entitled to collect any damages. As a result, the insurance company, the other driver, or the company they work for may all try to claim that you were somehow at fault. Naturally, this can make you angry, especially when it seems obvious the truck driver was to blame. But resist the urge to argue with the insurance company yourself. This rarely works out well for anyone. Instead, contact a North Carolina personal injury lawyer before you do anything else.

There are many different kinds of truck accidents and different ways of determining fault. In general, if you were rear-ended by a truck, the other driver will usually be found at fault except in rare circumstances. If the truck driver was breaking some sort of law, such as making an illegal turn or failing to yield, it will also probably be fairly simple to prove fault. However, if there were no witnesses or traffic cameras and the truck driver tells a different story than you do, sometimes you may have to work to prove that the other driver broke the law.

In general, the same rules for other auto accidents apply to proving fault in a truck accident case: You’ll need to show that the truck driver had a duty to drive in a reasonably careful manner, that they didn’t do so, that this led to your accident, and that you sustained damages as a result.

What If The Officer Responding To The Scene Didn’t Ticket The Other Driver?

As mentioned above, sometimes it can be difficult to know who was at fault if both drivers have different stories about what happened. For this reason, without further proof, an officer may not ticket anyone at the scene. Sometimes accident victims believe that this means they don’t have a valid case, but that isn’t necessarily true. A personal injury law firm has investigators who can look into your case and may find witnesses or evidence the responding officer didn’t have access to at the time they wrote their report. While it is helpful if the truck driver was ticketed, the fact that they weren’t ticketed doesn’t automatically mean your claim isn’t valid. If you have concerns about whether you have a valid claim, the best thing you can do is consult an experienced truck accident lawyer as soon as possible.

Are Truck Drivers Responsible For Damages? Who Is Liable In A Truck Accident?

Now we return to the difference between fault and liability. Let’s assume that the truck driver in your accident is 100 percent at fault, and you’re able to prove it. Generally, an at-fault driver is responsible for the damages they cause. But most of us lack the resources to pay for an expensive accident, and truck drivers are no exception. That’s where auto insurance comes in. Just like you pay for car insurance each month, so you won’t have to pay out of pocket if you get in an accident, truck drivers also carry liability insurance. 

However, most commercial truck drivers have commercial insurance that provides more robust coverage than typical personal liability policies. Truckers with a federal filing are required to carry $750,000 – $1,000,000 in liability coverage, depending on the type of driving they do. (This is combined coverage, so if the trucker has $750,000 in liability, that means $750,000 for both property damage to your vehicle and your bodily injuries/medical care.)

Now, compare that to the North Carolina state minimums for personal liability insurance. Under state laws, you’re required to have at least $30,000 in bodily injury liability coverage and $60,000 per accident, and the same for uninsured motorist coverage. You’re also required to have $25,000 in property damage liability coverage, and the same for uninsured motorist coverage. You can see that truck driving insurance is more likely to cover all the expenses an injured person might have to deal with than personal liability insurance.

However, there are rare severe injury or wrongful death cases where damages may exceed $750,000 or even $1,000,000. The insurance company will not pay beyond the policy limits. What then?

Could you sue the truck driver personally? Depending on the circumstances, possibly. Truck drivers usually aren’t liable for accidents that happen if they are following the terms of their employment. But there are exceptions, such as when drivers deliberately take negligent actions that lead to an accident – say, driving drunk or speeding. However, even in situations where the driver is liable, most truckers don’t have the resources to pay a six-figure claim either. Your attorney will probably advise against spending time and money in court suing someone who doesn’t have enough assets to cover your claim.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of luck in this kind of situation – there may still be other options. There’s a good chance your attorney will consider suing the trucking company itself. Like truck drivers, trucking companies are responsible for following various federal laws designed to keep the roads safe from large commercial vehicles. If the company fails to do so, you may have a claim against the trucking company.

One possible issue is truck maintenance. In some cases, the accident may be the truck’s fault, but not actually be due to any mistake the driver made. If the trucking company fails to keep the truck in “roadworthy” condition, they may be liable for any resulting accident. Here are some common situations of maintenance failure that may lead to truck accidents:

  • Failing to rotate and replace tires appropriately. Tire blowouts on an 18-wheeler can have deadly consequences, usually for other, smaller vehicles on the road.
  • Lack of maintenance on steering or braking systems. In some cases, the company may have failed to replace fluids or parts that were wearing out. Obviously, if the brakes or steering system on a large truck fail, serious accidents are likely to happen if there are any other vehicles nearby.
  • Failure to fix broken mirrors or lights. Mirrors are especially important on large trucks, as the driver sits high up and may struggle to see other vehicles around the very large trailer. If any of the mirrors break, they can have even less visibility. Broken lights can also make a semi-truck less visible to other drivers at night.
  • Ignoring a driver’s report of any kind of issue with the truck. In some cases, the driver says that they repeatedly alerted someone at the trucking company about some type of problem with the truck and were told to keep driving or that it would be taken care of later on. The longer a problem goes unfixed, the more likely it is to lead to an accident.

Hours of Service Violations

You may have heard that driving while sleepy or overtired can be as dangerous as driving drunk. This is an even bigger problem for someone driving a large commercial vehicle. As a result, federal trucking law also includes Hours of Service or HOS regulations. These place strict limits on how many hours a driver can be behind the wheel and how often and for how long they must take rest periods. Of course, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) doesn’t just take the driver’s word for it. Most truckers are now required to use an electronic logbook, which replaced older paper books. (Electronic logs are necessary for drivers who go between states, but some local drivers may not be required to use them.)

The electronic log is harder to fake than the paper copies – however, some trucking companies have found ways to cheat the system. Unfortunately, these unscrupulous companies may also pressure drivers to fake their logs or otherwise lie about their hours. The pressure isn’t always overt. In some situations, drivers admit that they were never specifically told to lie or fake their logs. They were simply given highly unrealistic expectations for keeping their jobs, such as making a trip in fewer hours than it would normally take. In this situation, the driver might have to choose between speeding (dangerous), driving too many hours without rest (also dangerous), or losing their job (not dangerous, but financially problematic for the driver). If the trucking company has placed a driver in a situation where they either have been told to lie about hours or felt they needed to, the company may be liable.

Hiring Practices

Yet another issue that may make a trucking company liable is hiring practices. It’s the trucking company’s responsibility to hire good, safe drivers and train them appropriately for the job. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Some problematic hiring practices include:

  • Failing to ensure the driver has the correct license (CDL) for the job.
  • Failing to hire someone with additional certifications for certain jobs (such as HAZMAT certification if the truck will be carrying certain dangerous substances).
  • Not bothering to do a background check and look into the driver’s record. Hiring drivers with a history of speeding tickets, DUIs, or other concerning driving behavior can leave the trucking company liable.
  • Failing to conduct a drug test on all new hires before putting them on the road.

Poor Training Practices

Once drivers are hired, the company is responsible for training them to do the particular job they’ve been hired for. Even if the driver has driven a truck before, they should be given instructions on loading the cargo correctly if they will be loading or unloading the truck. (Not all drivers are responsible for loading and unloading.) Many accidents occur because the cargo was loaded wrong, making the truck top-heavy and more prone to flipping or fishtailing. Cargo problems also happen with open-bed trucks, where an improperly secured piece of cargo can fall off the truck, hitting another vehicle on the road – sometimes without the driver’s knowledge! For example, if the driver fails to secure the load on a logging truck, a log could slide off the bed and punch through the windshield of a vehicle behind the truck. Or it could roll off onto the highway, creating a hazard in the road itself.

Who Causes More Accidents, Cars, or Semi Trucks?

An FMSCA study on large truck crash causation found that overall, drivers of passenger vehicles are more likely to be at fault than truck drivers, possibly because truck drivers have more training. However, there are certain kinds of accidents where the truck driver is more likely to be at fault:

  • If the cause was a driving decision, such as speeding or driving too aggressively.
  • If the cause was a vehicle failure, such as steering or brakes going out, or a tire blowout. (As mentioned above, these are particularly dangerous on a semi-truck.)
  • When the cause is driving too fast – beyond exceeding the speed limit, this can also mean simply going too fast for weather or traffic conditions, such as failing to slow down on wet or icy roads.
  • When the cause was failing to recognize a situation, such as when a driver is distracted or not paying attention.

Regardless of who is more likely to be at fault, many truck accidents occur due to the truck driver’s negligence. If you or a loved one have been hurt in a trucking accident that wasn’t your fault, don’t wait – please contact Auger and Auger Accident and Injury Lawyers for a free consultation. We’re happy to review your case and explain your options for seeking damages. Call 828-222-7649 or contact us online today.