Commercial Truck Accidents - Overview
A traffic accident involving a commercial truck, such as an eighteen-wheeler or other large freight carrier, can be much more catastrophic than an ordinary car accident. A typical fully-loaded large commercial truck can weigh 80,000 pounds or more, while an average passenger automobile weighs approximately 3,000 pounds. Because of this size disparity, and due to the basic laws of physics, any collision between a commercial truck and another vehicle is likely to result in serious, even fatal, injuries. While statistics show that truck drivers are generally much more careful on the road than automobile drivers, and thankfully the incidence of fatal crashes involving trucks and other large vehicles has declined in recent years, large truck crashes still accounted for 5,350 fatalities and 133,000 injuries in 2001.
The unique danger posed by commercial truck accidents can be made worse depending on the nature of the freight the truck is carrying. For example, if hazardous or flammable materials are on board, secondary injuries attributable to such dangerous cargo can result, including burns and respiratory injuries.
In the event that you or a loved one is involved in an accident with a commercial truck, you may be entitled to recover compensation for your injuries by bringing a legal claim against the responsible parties. This article will provide an overview of such a claim.
Proving Your Case
As is true in most personal injury cases involving vehicle accidents, the primary legal theory of liability in commercial truck accident cases is "negligence." In a nutshell, a person or business entity (the defendant) is negligent if they failed in their duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances, and the plaintiff's injuries resulted from that failure. So, a person injured in a commercial truck accident must show that:
- Defendant (driver, trucking company, or other party) owed the plaintiff the duty to exercise a reasonable degree of care to avoid injury, under the circumstances. This element is almost always automatically met, by virtue of the fact that all drivers on the road owe a legal duty of reasonable care to fellow drivers, passengers, and pedestrians;
- Defendant failed to exercise such reasonable care, or in legal terms "breached" the duty of reasonable care;
- Defendant's failure to exercise reasonable care was the cause of injury suffered by plaintiff.
In order to ensure a complete legal recovery for injuries suffered in an accident involving a commercial vehicle, it is important that you and your attorney identify as many potential defendants as possible. In many such cases, the truck driver may not be the only person or business entity legally responsible for the accident. Trucking companies, contractors, employers, and insurance companies may be obligated to compensate you for your injuries.
When a commercial truck accident occurs, if an employment relationship is established between the truck driver and a trucking or shipping company, then that company can be held legally liable for the driver's negligence under a legal theory known as "respondeat superior." Under this liability doctrine, among other things your attorney will need to show that the company exercised some degree of control over the driver, and that the accident occurred while the driver was acting in the course of the employment relationship. Establishing the liability of a third-party company can become problematic when a truck driver is an independent contractor of a larger company. In such a situation, the key issue becomes the amount of supervising done by the company. The potential liability of trucking companies, employers, and contractors is a key factor in assessing recovery through insurance coverage, as all these entities will likely carry separate policies that will apply to the accident.
In some rare cases, the manufacturer or shipper of hazardous materials carried by the truck may also be legally responsible for any injuries that were caused or made worse by the type of cargo on board. For example, if a shipper fails to advise a truck driver or trucking company of hazardous material contained in a load of freight, the shipper may be liable for injuries that result if that material catches fire or is released.
If you are involved in an accident where a commercial truck driver was at fault, you may be entitled to receive legal compensation for any physical, emotional and financial losses that resulted from the accident. This is a complex area of the law because its is always difficult to place a dollar value on injuries that include death, paralysis, disfigurement, emotional distress, pain and suffering, costs of medical treatment, lost income, and loss of earning capacity.
In assessing and presenting your claim, a skilled attorney will consider all aspects of the harm and loss you have suffered as a result of your accident, to ensure that you receive fair compensation for your injuries.
Special Considerations In Truck Accident Cases
The operation of large commercial trucks on highways and roads presents certain unique dangers that are not a consideration where ordinary passenger vehicles are concerned:
- Jackknifing - Large big-rig vehicles such as eighteen-wheelers are prone to jackknifing under certain conditions, especially during sudden braking and turning. The fact that a truck jackknifes is not in itself proof of operator negligence, because many accident situations present difficulties in which there is no practical way to avoid jackknifing without risking some other form of catastrophe. For example, operation of a truck that has jackknifed may be held to be non-negligent where the jackknifing was due to unforeseeable slipperiness of the road, or to an abrupt turn undertaken to avoid a motorist or stalled truck.
- Turning Accidents - Commercial vehicles are very long, and can be difficult to turn. It is often necessary for the driver of a commercial vehicle to use two lanes of traffic to make a right turn, in order to avoid running the rear wheels into parked vehicles or over a sidewalk. While also not a clear cut case of negligence, some courts have held that driving a commercial vehicle in this manner (turning from an inside lane or occupying two lanes) is sufficient to establish the truck driver's fault.
Getting Legal Help After a Commercial Truck Accident
Any traffic accident involving a commercial truck is likely to result in serious physical injury and property damage. In the event that you or a loved one are involved in such an accident, after receiving proper medical care you may want to consult an experienced attorney to ensure that any potential legal claim is properly assessed and that your rights are protected. Especially in light of legal deadlines for filing lawsuits, meeting with an attorney as soon as possible is the best way to protect your rights.
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