Just Published: Should a Truck Wreck Case Be Handled Like a Car Wreck?

“ . . . it costs a lot to win, and even more to lose” (Jerry Garcia)

Cases involving a tractor trailer (18-wheeler, semi, big rig) or other commercial motor vehicle(s) should not be handled like the typical car wreck case!

In an article just published in the The Tennessee Trial Lawyer, the journal of the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association (Click here and scroll to pp. 10-13), Patrick Cruise and Hubert Hamilton point out just some of the considerations that make truck wreck cases very different from the typical car wreck case:

  • Commercial drivers are required to have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and are supposed to be screened, qualified and professionally trained, 49 CFR 383 and 391. They must also be medically certified as fit to drive.
  • Different standards apply to commercial drivers. Most important are the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR), which apply to “all employers, employees, and commercial motor vehicles that transport property or passengers in interstate commerce” (49 CFR 3T).
  • Trucking cases are aggressively investigated and defended by trucking companies, their insurers and their lawyers. Trucking companies often have rapid response teams at the scene of a bad wreck while the injury victims are being evaluated in the emergency room. While your client is still in the hospital recovering from his or her injuries, the trucking company’s team (experts, lawyers, and investigators) are likely interviewing the parties and witnesses, and securing evidence.
  • 49 CFR 387.9 requires a minimum of $750,000 liability coverage for any motor carrier operating in interstate commerce carrying non-hazardous cargo for hire. In addition, there may be complicated layers of excess coverage over and above the required minimum.
  • A commercial truck driver is a professional and should be held to a higher standard of care than the driver of an ordinary passenger vehicle. See Dakter v. Cavallino, 866 N.W.2d 656 (Wis. 2015). For instance, 49 CFR 392.14 requires a commercial driver to exercise extreme caution and to reduce speed when hazardous conditions, such as those caused by snow, ice, sleet, fog, mist, rain, dust, or smoke, adversely affect visibility or traction. And, 49 CFR 392.3 prohibits the operation of a commercial motor vehicle while the driver’s ability or alertness is impaired, or so likely to become impaired, due to fatigue, illness, or any other cause, so as to make it unsafe for him/her to operate the tractor trailer.
  • Much more is at stake than in the typical car wreck case, as a wreck involving a tractor trailer often results in fatalities or severe injuries. And, several vehicles may be involved with multiple plaintiffs.

In the typical car wreck case, lawyers are usually focused on the actions of each driver in the few seconds leading up to the crash. Did the defendant stop at the stop sign? Who ran the red light? Was the defendant speeding? Was the defendant following too closely? Was the plaintiff speeding? Was the plaintiff or defendant distracted, on the phone or texting? The actions or omissions of each driver just before the crash are examined and the jury is asked to determine who was at fault based on those few seconds.

In a truck wreck case, however, the focus should be on the trucking company, and not necessarily on the truck driver. What the driver could have done to prevent the wreck is certainly important, but what the trucking company could and should have done to prevent the crash may be far more important. The trucking company, which is supposed to train and supervise its drivers, plan safe routes, and actively work to prevent wrecks, will have had numerous opportunities to understand, plan, train and prevent most crashes. Focusing on system failure by the trucking company is often the key to success in truck wreck cases.

Lawyers who try to handle a serious injury or death case involving a tractor trailer or other commercial motor vehicle just like a typical car wreck case are not likely to obtain a full and fair recovery the client. When our firm accepts representation in a truck wreck case, we start preparing for trial immediately. There are no short cuts, and there is no substitute for meticulous, thorough preparation.