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Who is Legally Responsible for a Truck Underride Accident?

Offered by Mani Ellis & Layne, PLLC

Know your legal rights and options after an underride truck crash

Some of the deadliest crashes on roads throughout America are underride accidents. Underride occurs when a smaller vehicle, like a car, SUV, van, or motorcycle, slides underneath the trailer of a semi-truck, often causing severe and fatal injuries when parts of the trailer enter the cab of the smaller vehicle.

Underride accidents are preventable, and if you’ve been injured in one, you have legal recourse. Here’s what you need to know about your legal rights.

How underride accidents happen

Every underride crash involves a smaller vehicle striking the trailer of a tractor-trailer. Such a trailer is much higher off the ground than a passenger car, and the top of the car might only reach the wheels, not the bottom of the trailer itself. This creates an empty space for the car to slide underneath the trailer.

There are three main ways for underride to occur:

  • Rear-end crash: a smaller vehicle hits the back of the trailer head-on, causing it to become wedged beneath the trailer. Decapitation and loss of limbs are common as the back of the trailer enters the cab.
  • Side-impact crash: the smaller vehicle makes contact with the side of the trailer, potentially shearing off the roof of the smaller car. This can happen at an intersection, or as the truck makes a wide turn, merges, or changes lanes.
  • Offset crash: a car hits the corner of the trailer rather than striking either the back or side head-on, usually during a turn. These crashes can also cause fatal injuries if the metal corner enters the cab and strikes a driver or passenger.

U.S. Department of Transportation regulations require certain underride prevention measures for most commercial trucks (although some vehicles, such as agricultural vehicles – a category that includes log trucks – are exempt). Commercial trailers are required to have rear guards and use reflective tape on the back and sides to increase visibility.

The role of negligence in underride accident cases

An immediate legal challenge in many underride accident cases is that the smaller vehicle hits the truck from the rear. In a rear-end accident, there is a presumption that the driver of the rear vehicle is at fault, and that presumption doesn’t change just because the vehicle in front is a commercial truck.

However, there are several types of negligence on the part of the truck driver that can cause an underride crash. For instance, a trucker who fails to pay attention and then slams on the brakes at the last minute may cause a smaller vehicle to hit the trailer from behind, and a driver who fails to check blind spots before merging or changing lanes may leave the driver of a smaller vehicle with no way to avoid a collision. Many underride accidents happen when a truck is parked on the shoulder, and a trucker who fails to appropriately use road flares or reflective triangles or illegally parks the truck protruding into the roadway can be held liable for a collision.

Occasionally, the driver of another vehicle might be held liable for an underride crash. For instance, if a truck has to slam on the brakes or swerve to avoid a collision, that may start a chain reaction that leads to a rear- or side-impact collision.

More important, though, is the role of trucking companies and truck manufacturers in underride crashes. A trucking company may install an underride guard that is not the right size for the trailer or doesn’t meet the strength or impact requirements, or simply install it higher than intended, making it useless. Poorly manufactured guards and trailers can also contribute to underride. In addition, defective or poorly maintained taillights, running lights, and reflective tape can lower the truck’s visibility and cause an underride collision.

An experienced attorney can get to the bottom of an underride crash

The long-term cost of an underride crash can be tremendous. Again, these crashes are often fatal – hundreds of people die every year in underride accidents. Survivors may have permanent injuries such as traumatic brain injuries and lost limbs. Such a severe injury can have a ripple effect on the victim’s entire life, limiting their ability to work, care for their family, and do the things they love. When you take into account the full long-term cost of a severe injury, an underride accident can easily cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

However, recovering this compensation requires thorough investigation, evidence, and an in-depth knowledge of both state law and the federal laws and regulations that apply to the trucking industry. You need an attorney, and you specifically need an attorney with experience handling high-stakes truck accident cases. If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one in an underride accident, talk to an experienced truck accident lawyer in your area about your legal options as soon as possible.

Mani Ellis & Layne, PLLC is a personal injury law firm based in West Virginia and Ohio.

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