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Determining Liability in Virginia Truck Accidents

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Any motor vehicle accident can cause severe injuries, but crashes involving tractor-trailers and other large commercial vehicles are especially deadly. Because of their sheer size, heavy trucks can inflict devastating injuries when they are involved in crashes with smaller vehicles. Victims of these accidents can face an uncertain future, as costs rise and stresses increase.

One of the challenges for truck accident victims is identifying which party or parties are liable (legally responsible) for the accident. If you were involved in a truck accident on I-95, I-66, or another major highway in Virginia, it’s important to understand your rights, so you can contact an experienced Virginia truck accident lawyer immediately.

How attorneys determine who is liable

Any determination of liability can only be assessed after a competent and thorough investigation.  There is a lot of information to review and sift through, which can be frustrating if you do not know what you are looking for. That’s why you need an experienced legal team that has worked big-rig crashes before, knows what data has to be reviewed and preserved – and knows how to find that information that the insurance companies and their trucking company clients don't want you to find!

Parties that can potentially be liable for trucking accidents

Depending on the circumstances of a trucking accident, there are numerous parties that can be held legally responsible. Those parties include:

The truck driver as an individual

Truck drivers, like any other road user, can be held responsible for various forms of negligence behind the wheel, such as distracted driving, aggressive driving, speeding, or falling asleep at the wheel. Truckers are also held to additional legal standards because of the size and weight of their vehicles. Negligence by a truck driver may include:

  • Violations of Hours of Service (HOS) requirements: Federal regulations require truck drivers to obey certain limits on driving time in order to reduce the risk of falling asleep at the wheel. Drivers cannot drive more than 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty or drive beyond the 14th consecutive hour after 10 consecutive hours off duty. They must take a 30-minute break after driving for 8 cumulative hours. And they cannot drive after 60 hours on duty in 7 consecutive days or 70 hours on duty in 8 consecutive days. A trucker who violates the HOS rules and causes an accident due to fatigue can be held legally responsible.
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs: The maximum legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for commercial drivers is 0.04, half the legal limit for other drivers. But even if a trucker is below the legal limit, they can still be found at fault for a crash if they were impaired and their impairment caused the accident. Unfortunately, this is a common hazard: according to research compiled by the American Addiction Centers, over a quarter of truckers have reported drug use, and 19 percent have reported binge drinking.
  • Improper braking: Because commercial trucks are so large and have so much momentum, they require proper braking technique in order to safely slow or stop. In some circumstances, drivers need to pump the brakes; in others, they need to maintain steady pressure on the brakes. Improper braking can lead to jackknifing, loss of stability, and rear-end collisions.
  • Inadequate surveillance: Inadequate surveillance means the truck driver needs to look to ensure safety before beginning a maneuver and either does not look, or looks but does not see. Tractor-trailers have massive blind spots and make wide turns, so proper surveillance is crucial before changing lanes, making turns, or proceeding through intersections. Many collisions caused by inadequate surveillance involve a vehicle in the truck’s “no-zones,” including the areas immediately in front of and behind the truck as well as in the blind spots on the sides.
  • Driving too fast for the conditions: Truckers are often paid by the mile and under pressure to make deliveries as fast as possible, so they have economic incentives to drive faster. But safety always should be prioritized over speed, especially in inclement weather or on icy roads. High speeds can lead to loss of stability and accidents such as rollovers, or rear-ending other vehicles when there is insufficient time to stop.

The trucking company

Trucking companies have legal responsibilities for their vehicles and the cargo they transport. Some of the ways a trucking company can be held legally liable for an accident include:

  • Vicarious liability: A legal principle called respondeat superior allows injury victims to hold the at-fault party’s employer responsible for injuries caused by negligence in the course and scope of employment. However, whether a truck driver is an “employee” for these purposes is sometimes contentious, and an experienced attorney is needed to satisfy every element of this doctrine.
  • Improper, Unsafe, or Dangerous Practices: Sometimes companies can flout the law and direct their employees to do things that they know are unsafe, but the company wants them done anyway to maximize profits.  Before digital logs, it was very common for truck drivers to keep two separate log books (one to show their company, and one to show DOT)!  These unsafe practices can cause serious accidents.
  • Negligent hiring: Trucking companies are responsible for putting their vehicles in the hands of safe, responsible, qualified drivers. Negligent hiring may include failing to conduct a background check, failing to verify the driver’s Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), or failing to follow up on red flags in a job application. A related concept called negligent retention applies when a trucking company becomes aware of safety concerns but continues to employ the trucker.
  • Negligent supervision: In addition to hiring safe and responsible operators, trucking companies need to train and supervise their drivers to ensure that they are following safety best practices and driving defensively. Failure to adequately supervise a driver can be the basis for a claim against the trucking company. 
  • Failure to inspect and maintain the truck: While driver error is the most common cause of truck accidents according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), vehicle-related problems cause approximately one in 10 truck crashes. Brake problems in particular are one of the top factors in truck accidents, and other maintenance issues such as worn tires can increase the risk of a collision as well.

Unfortunately, it is far too common for trucking companies to put profits ahead of safety. For instance, many trucking companies put pressure on drivers to make unrealistic delivery schedules or cut corners on vehicle maintenance. When these safety compromises result in severe accidents, the trucking company can be held accountable individually, rather than as the mere employer of the at-fault truck driver.

The company that loaded the cargo

Depending on the type of truck and the type of cargo, improperly loading cargo can be disastrous. If the load is not properly balanced, the truck can become unstable, increasing the risk of a rollover or jackknife. If the load spills onto the road, it becomes a hazard to every vehicle traveling behind the truck, with the potential for numerous devastating injuries.

In these circumstances, the company that loaded the truck – which may be the owner of the cargo or a third party – may be held responsible for their negligence in loading the truck improperly. It’s important to note, however, that the truck driver and trucking company cannot escape liability by simply pointing the finger at the cargo loading company. Once a trucker accepts a load, they also accept responsibility for the load.

The manufacturer of the truck or components of the truck

Again, mechanical issues play a role in a significant minority of truck collisions. Sometimes, these issues are caused by poor maintenance, but in other situations, they may be caused by poorly manufactured trucks or truck parts. A manufacturer can be liable if their product contained a design defect – that is, it was inherently flawed in a manner that contributed to the accident – or a manufacturing defect – the product was made with substandard materials or processes and thus became dangerous.

Manufacturer liability is a common concern in truck accidents involving underride crashes. An underride accident occurs when a smaller vehicle hits the truck from the rear or side and slides underneath the trailer, inflicting devastating and often fatal injuries. Trucks are equipped with underride guards to reduce this risk, but those guards often fail, with tragic consequences.

Additionally, in certain crashes, freight brokers (sometimes called shippers) can be liable, as can dispatching companies.  These determinations are very fact-dependent. 

Other parties involved in the accident

As with any other motor vehicle accident, truck accidents can involve multiple vehicles, any or all of which can share responsibility for the collision. For example, if the truck driver slammed on the brakes in response to another driver suddenly pulling in front of the truck, then the trucker and the other motorist may share responsibility for the accident.

It’s important to note that in Virginia, if you as the injured person are even slightly responsible for the accident, you cannot recover compensation for your losses. This is the “contributory negligence” rule. However, you can recover compensation from multiple at-fault parties as long as your own percentage of fault is zero.

Freight brokers and shippers

Liability can sometimes be established and can extend to the freight brokers and shippers of the cargo, even if no one from that company was at the scene of the truck accident.   The investigation at this stage is very complicated, and often results in litigation, as subpoenas are often necessary to compel the production of information necessary to make this connection.  While this is not necessary in every case, there are instances where, even after identifying other liable parties, the compensation available is still insufficient to cover the damages sustained, such as in a wrongful death case.

Why you need a truck accident attorney to prove liability

Given the number of potentially responsible parties, proving liability for a truck accident is a complex process. There are numerous witnesses who need to be identified and interviewed, reports that must be pored over, and critical evidence that needs to be secured, including but not limited to:

  • Hours of Service (HOS) logs, which indicate when the trucker took legally mandated breaks (and may indicate discrepancies with other records).
  • “Black box” data, which gives important information on the truck’s speed and direction of travel, whether the brakes were used, and so on.
  • Hiring, training, and supervision records, which can help to prove negligent hiring or negligent supervision on the part of the trucking company.
  • Toxicology reports, which show what drugs or other substances, if any, were in the driver's system at the time of the crash.
  • Truck maintenance records, which may indicate that the truck was not properly maintained, creating a safety hazard.

Depending on the type of evidence, an attorney may need to hire expert witnesses, such as engineers, accident reconstructionists, and road safety experts, to get to the bottom of what happened and why. And they need to review, cross-reference, and synthesize this information to understand which party or parties were responsible for the crash.

This process moves quickly – that’s why the trucking companies and their insurance companies usually have investigators on the scene within 24 hours. Injured victims need to move just as quickly, especially because much of the evidence is the trucking company’s property. An attorney must intervene promptly to preserve key evidence before it can be destroyed.

Talk to a truck accident lawyer with experience and resources today

Truck accident victims simply cannot go up against the trucking companies on their own. Investigating and litigating a truck accident case is a complex process that requires extensive experience and resources. Proving liability is only one piece of the puzzle. One misstep or missed deadline can prove disastrous, and only an attorney with experience and a winning track record in truck accident cases can build a winning claim.

Truck accident law firms offer free consultations and work on contingency, so there is absolutely no downside to talking to a truck accident lawyer about your options. If you have been injured or lost a loved one in a truck crash in Virginia, don’t put your legal rights at risk. Talk to an experienced truck accident attorney in your area today!

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Blaszkow Legal, PLLC is a personal injury law firm with decades of experience litigating cases in Virginia, Maryland, and DC. We believe in working closely with our clients and ag...