Truck and car on the road

Holding a Trucking Company Liable for an Accident

In 2016 there were nearly 17,000 semi-truck collisions in Indiana alone. For anyone who’s been the victim of one of these accidents, it may seem confusing what the next step is in pursuing a legal case. A collision with a semi-truck is an entirely different set of circumstances than an average fender bender. If you’re concerned about how to move forward, here’s a reference on what to expect if you are claiming negligence played a role in your accident.

Have you been injured in a motor vehicle accident? Christie Farrell Lee & Bell has an experienced team of car accident attorneys who can help you explore your options.

At the Scene of a Semi-Truck Accident

In a traditional car accident, both involved parties will exchange information, contact authorities, and then reach out to one or both insurance companies to begin a claim. However, when a semi-truck is involved it’s usual for the trucking fleet to send out an attorney or corporate representative to the scene ASAP. The job of this person is to protect the company and the driver from any liability. They’ll look at time sheets and record logs, GPS systems, camera footage, and ECMs (black boxes). This will help to see what evidence might help or hurt their defense. For this reason, it’s critical that you collect as much information as possible to demonstrate your experience, too. Any photos or videos you can take with your phone, both of the damage to your vehicle as well as the general scene of the accident will be helpful. Additionally, you should get the contact information of anyone who could possibly provide a witness statement or shows up at the scene. Ultimately, it’s best to immediately contact an attorney who can come and help to facilitate the flow of information and act on your behalf.

Semi Accident Insurance Claim Process

There are many nuances within the trucking industry as it pertains to liability. Some drivers are employees, while others are on contract to do work, sometimes called an owner-operator. This is why some drivers carry personal insurance while others are covered by the fleet. In fact, there may be multiple insurance policies at play in a single accident. Trailers themselves might even be insured separate from the cab or driver.

The basic question that is posed is who has responsibility for the tractor versus the trailer. The materials gathered at the scene of the accident are certainly of great importance, but a competent lawyer will assemble a clearer picture. This picture will include who the driver is and also the companies involved, their responsibilities, and how each connects. After sending a letter of representation, an attorney will make formal requests for any investigation materials. This might include things like black box records, logbooks, photos, or records like training, fitness, and maintenance. Attorneys will also request communications like texts, emails, and other messages.

The investigation will also focus on public information about the carrier company and driver like reported prior accidents, levels of insurance coverage, past violations of Federal or state regulations, and more. This will help to establish whether the individual driver was entirely to blame, or if the carrier company had any unlawful or unsafe practices in place.

Independent Contractors and Trucking Companies

Living in Indiana, most people are familiar with the sight of semi-trucks zooming down the highway. But most people probably don’t know how huge the industry is. As of 2016, 3.5 million people were employed as truck drivers. Given those numbers, you may be surprised to know that there is currently a shortage of truck drivers in the United States. The shortage has been attributed to people being turned off by the type of lifestyle truckers lead on a day-to-day basis.  Due to the shortage, it is getting harder to find quality truck drivers. Because of this, some companies may be hiring drivers with spotty driving histories while depending more on independent contractors to get their goods from point A to point B. As the shortage continues there has been a spike in semi-truck related accidents. These types of accidents can lead to some complicated legal issues for all parties, including the injured party.

What Does it Mean to be an Independent Trucking Contractor?

Being an independent contractor (AKA owner operator) in the trucking world entails a lot more responsibility on the part of the driver in comparison to a company driver. Owner operators choose their own hours, who they work for, as well as what kind of truck they want to drive. They are also responsible for a lot of their own oversight, which takes a lot of responsibility away from the company who hires them. On the other hand, independent contractors pay for their own trucks, truck maintenance, and insurance. So while they have more freedom in some areas, they also have more responsibility for their own financial oversight.

Why Do Companies Hire Independent Truck Drivers?

One regulation among many in the trucking industry is the fact that truckers are restricted to only driving 11 hours a day within a 14-hour period. While this good for highway safety, it cuts into a manufacturer’s ability to ship as quickly as they used to. This rule is in place for both independent contractors and company-owned trucks, but some companies find it easier to work with independent contractors. This is because they don’t have to worry about the logistics that go into keeping track of a company driver as far as how much they drive, leaving a lot of the oversight to the independent trucker themselves. The ability to not be held responsible for the oversight of contracted drivers is a huge advantage for a lot of companies. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be held liable in some circumstances.

Truck Driver vs. Truck Company Liability

Any company who hires an independent contractor is responsible for meeting the best practices of the trucking industry. Most importantly, it means that they hire capable drivers. They should check things like driving records and motor vehicle record reviews. If they don’t they could be found responsible if that driver injures someone in an accident. The companies are also responsible for making sure that the contracted drivers have been properly trained on the type of truck they are driving. As well as all the different processes involved in doing the job they were hired for. If they aren’t, the leasing company could be found responsible for damages caused on their behalf. In the end, there are some distinct differences between dealing with an independent contractor and a trucking company.

Owner Operator Insurance Issues

Statistically, it has been shown that owner operators are involved in fewer and less severe accidents than company employed truckers, but they still need to carry insurance to operate legally in the United States. However, the insurance issues involving owner operators can be a little complicated. If you are involved in an accident with an independent trucker, you may end up dealing with multiple insurance companies and different policies. Finding yourself in a situation where you have been injured in an accident involving a commercial truck, insurance issues can be extremely complicated and one of the many reasons you need to talk to an attorney.

Video Footage in Trucking Accident Cases

Trucking accidents are a concern for all drivers, whether they’re in the semi itself or a car nearby. Luckily, when an accident does happen, technology can help us figure out the cause and assign liability. Some of these tools are cameras that record the road in front of the truck, the driver in the truck, or both. Often the footage from these cameras is very important evidence in a trucking accident case.

Front-Facing Cameras

Front-facing cameras are positioned on the dashboard, facing towards the road. They are designed to record the driver’s view. Many trucking companies are installing cameras with technology called Smart Drive that tracks the speed of the semi at the time of the collision. With GPS integration, these cameras can even give the jury a clear picture of exactly what happened in the accident. If the trucker tried to slow down or swerve, that can be taken into account. While trucking fleets aren’t legally obligated to use these technologies, many of them choose to do so to protect themselves, their employees, and other passengers on the road.

Driver-Facing Cameras

These cameras are pointed directly at the drivers and record their activity during the run. This allows fleets to make sure drivers aren’t eating, using a cell phone, or drifting off to sleep while driving. One article at TruckingInfo suggests that installing these cameras often have a positive effect on the way drivers operate their equipment.  Some trucking fleets experienced a 34% decrease in total accidents within the first year of driver-facing camera installation.

Unfortunately, it is the case that drivers sometimes cover up the camera because they feel it’s intruding on their privacy or they simply don’t want to comply with policies. In those cases, that unsafe behavior could be factored by a jury deliberating on a trucking accident lawsuit.

In a trucking accident case, footage from front- and driver-facing cameras can be used to see what was happening from the driver’s point of view during the event, as well as their reaction to it. When footage from the front-facing camera can be compared to the driver-facing footage, attorneys, juries, and insurance adjusters can sometimes piece together how the accident occurred and determine more accurately who was at fault.

Semi-Truck Blind Spots

Semi-trucks have large blind spots that prevent truck drivers from completely seeing their surroundings, but they still need to be aware people might be in those zones. For example, all these motorcycles in the picture above are in a blind spot. Truck drivers should be educated on these blind spots and drive responsibly. Here are the most common blind spots drivers need to know about, and what trucking companies and drivers need to do to make sure others aren’t at risk.

Semi Blind Spot In Front of the Cab

The front of the truck where the driver sits is called the cab. Most people assume that as long as they’re in front of a semi, they’re safe. This isn’t entirely the truth. If you drive just in front of the cab, you are cut off by the end of the front window and the long engine of the truck. No mirrors show this angle, so truck drivers should be trained to check carefully before turning or accelerating and leave distance between themselves and other vehicles on the road.

Semi Blind Spot on Passenger Side

The passenger side of the semi is one of the biggest blind-spots for a truck driver. As seen in the picture, it’s difficult for the driver to see much on the passenger side of the truck. This is why on many highways and freeways, trucks are required by law to keep in the right lane. If a trucker is driving in the left lane, it’s unlikely they will see someone trying to pass on the right.

Semi Blind Spot on Driver’s Side

Drivers have an easier time seeing out the window on their left, but a blind spot still exists further back along the trailer or truck bed. This is why the driver using turn signals to warn others of a lane change is essential when a truck is merging. The best way to stay visible on the left side is to stay at a distance and parallel to the window or speed up and pass when possible.

Semi Blind Spot Behind the Trailer

The blind spot behind a semi-trailer causes so many injuries and deaths, the industry is creating safety protections like underride guards to prevent tragic truck and semi accidents. Unfortunately, these are not yet required by law to be on all trucks and semis. This blind spot is one the driver of the truck should always consider when braking or stopping suddenly.

While semi-truck blind spots are potentially dangerous, they may be dramatically reduced through the introduction of camera systems. One trucking technology company even hopes to replace side-view mirrors entirely with cameras. The mounted digital displays provide a driver views of the blind spot in the front of the cab along with the ground and lanes on either side of the truck. If these cameras or others are in use during an accident, the resulting footage is valuable evidence of what happened.

Truck Drivers and Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can have devastating effects on anyone who suffers from it, especially a commercial truck driver. The Mayo Clinic defines sleep apnea as a potentially serious disorder in which someone’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts while they sleep. This condition can have devastating effects on the quality of rest for a sleeper, leaving those suffering it more tired after a night’s sleep than they were before it. For truck drivers especially, that tiredness can mean consequences for themselves and other drivers. In fact, researchers estimate that up to 20% of trucking accidents occur because of drowsy or fatigued driving.

Department of Transportation Physicals

A sleep apnea test isn’t legally required before someone can be issued a commercial driver’s licence. However, the Department of Transportation requires that truck drivers undergo routine physical examinations by a DOT-certified medical examiner every 24 months. During these physicals, the DOT doctors must specifically check for issues that might affect the patient’s driving abilities, including respiratory problems like sleep apnea. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association (FMCSA) recommends that all fleets ask drivers to be tested for sleep apnea, and often sleep apnea testing (or a record of a previous test) is required by trucking companies before they will hire a driver.

Why It Matters

If a driver’s sleep apnea isn’t properly diagnosed and treated, they may not have the energy to safely operate a vehicle for long consecutive hours. However, it’s not just about the diagnosis, it’s also about the driver adopting the right habits. A Harvard study found that drivers with obstructive sleep apnea who did not adhere to their treatment plans were five times more likely to cause a crash. While the liability in these cases can be complex, any other individuals involved in those incidents don’t want to wait around for the driver, the doctor, and the fleet to figure it out.

Recent Causes of Indiana Semi Accidents

It seems like every few days there’s some kind of collision involving a semi on one of Indiana’s many highways, but some of the ones last month had more unusual causes than we normally see. On January 10, a 465 overpass was damaged when a car crusher being hauled underneath it randomly malfunctioned and switched on. A second random incident occurred on January 21, when a trailer full of 38,000 pounds of marbles detached from the truck and spilled the tiny glass beads all over 465 near Pendleton Pike. Luckily, no one was injured.

That same luck held out on January 23 when two semis collided on I-65 near Lafayette. The driver of the one in front fell asleep and woke up just in time to avoid hitting a bridge. The truck driver behind him didn’t have time to stop before the two collided. Though the first truck caught fire, no one was injured. That’s not a new thing to have happen, but we’re glad they were okay.

However, two other incidents, one near Fort Wayne and one in Michigan City, have resulted in injury to drivers of passenger cars. The details of those accidents have not been made public, with respect to the privacy of all parties involved. However, anything from simple human error to a technical malfunction of one or both vehicles could clearly play a role. Often when these accidents occur, deciding who is at fault can be complicated.

We wish all those involved a speedy recovery from any lingering injuries, and to all drivers of Indiana’s roads we wish safe travels. Don’t forget to avoid distracted driving and get plenty of rest before a long trip!

Have you been injured in a motor vehicle accident? Christie Farrell Lee & Bell has an experienced team of car accident attorneys who can help you explore your options.