Who is Responsible for Damages After an Accident with a Tractor Trailer?

by Doug Zanes | Last Updated: December 20, 2021

Due to their size and weight, tractor-trailer accidents can be exceedingly dangerous. In fact, according to the most recent data available, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reported that in Arizona, 69 people were killed in truck accidents during the course of a year.

Since the injuries involved with truck accidents can be so serious, it can be overwhelming for families to think about how they will pay for mounting medical bills. That’s why it’s critical to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

Commercial truck accidents greatly vary from typical car accidents in a few ways. Whereas most of the time, car accidents happen due to driver error, road conditions, or vehicle malfunction, commercial truck accidents can happen because of entirely different factors. This means that different entities, such as the following, may be liable.

Without finding someone else responsible for the accident, you will have to bear nearly all of the costs of the trucking accident. You may get some help with property damage and medical costs from your own insurance company, but you will have to bear the brunt of the accident costs. If you have missed time from work, the responsible party will need to pay you for that.

First, let us review the legal standard for finding someone responsible for a truck accident. No matter who the defendant is, the standard will be negligence.

Each court will use this four-part test for negligence:

  • The other party owed you a duty of care
  • They breached the duty of care by acting unreasonably under the circumstances
  • You suffered an injury
  • Your injuries would not exist had if not for the acts of the defendant

When you are trying to show that someone else was negligent, you must prove each of these four elements of the test. The more difficult ones to prove are the second and fourth elements. These will require facts to show that the truck driver acted unreasonably and that their actions were the cause of your injuries.

The Truck Driver

As with a car accident, a truck driver may be held liable for a truck accident. Truck drivers that engage in risky driving behaviors and who act negligently are often to blame. Such negligent actions include:

  • Impaired Driving
  • Speeding
  • Violating Hours of Service
  • Distracted Driving
  • Aggressive Driving
  • Drowsy Driving
  • Overloaded Trucks

Even if they did not commit one of the above actions, truck drivers are often thrown out onto the road these days with less training than they should have. The supply chain bottleneck and truck driver shortage means that trucking companies are scrounging for truckers. They may hire people who have fewer qualifications than in the past simply because they need warm bodies to drive trucks.

The result is that there are far more inexperienced truck drivers on the road than in the past. They may be more likely to make a mistake behind the wheel, even if they are fully alert. All it takes is misjudging distance or a wrong move when making a turn to cause a serious truck accident.

Even the more experienced truck driver is prone to making mistakes due to the pressures of the job. They have a limited amount of time to drive on the road due to federal trucking regulations that mandate rest, along with the time pressure of delivering when the customer wants it. With the time crunch, truckers may take shortcuts and speed, making accidents more likely. Otherwise, a lack of experience can cause them to oversteer or inappropriately respond to challenges on the road.

The Trucking Company

Since we want to discourage trucking companies from placing profits above the creation of a safe work environment, they are also often held responsible for the actions of their driver.

For example, the trucking industry is regulated so that a driver can only drive for so many hours before he or she must take a break. This is because drivers who are driving while drowsy often fail to employ safe driving techniques.

Trucking companies are often under a huge amount of pressure. On the one hand, their customers are demanding that they deliver on time. On the other hand, they have many regulations that they must comply with to deliver their cargo safely.

In the end, many truck drivers and companies prioritize speed over safety. They can cut corners to try to speed up deliveries. This may work for them, right up until the point where they face penalties for breaking the rules or one of their drivers causes an accident. However, this does not restore the health that you lost when they violated laws.

We are not saying that every trucking company has a culture of non-compliance with safety rules and regulations. However, we are pointing out that the trucking industry is a cutthroat business. If one trucking company cannot make it there in time, the customer can find dozens of others who will, doing whatever it takes to make it there in time. The trucking company may feel tempted to endanger the public.

These include:

  • Not fully checking driver’s backgrounds and driving records before hiring them
  • Taking shortcuts on training drivers
  • Pressuring drivers to ignore federal rest requirements to make on-time delivery
  • Putting trucks out on to the road when they need maintenance

Even if the trucking company does not employ the driver, they can still be responsible for the accident. Many trucking companies classify their drivers as independent contractors, in part to avoid legal responsibility for the driver’s actions. However, they can still be liable for negligent hiring, even if the driver technically does not work for the trucking company. This is an arrangement that companies like FedEx like to use, but it does not fully protect them from legal liability in the event of a truck accident.

In addition, the trucking company can also take maintenance shortcuts due to the delivery pressure that they are facing, as there are federal maintenance rules that they need to follow before they allow a truck out onto the road. All it takes is for a tire blowout or failure to cause a major accident.

One of the most common ways that a maintenance failure can cause an accident is through a tire blowout. The mechanics may not fully check the health of the tire, or they may ignore signs of tire failure. In the meantime, the driver may have a tire go down when they are driving the vehicle, causing them to lose control of the truck. Even the most experienced truck drivers have difficulty controlling their trucks through blowouts.

Note that while we always use the term “trucking company,” there can be a very complicated legal structure in place to protect the company to the greatest extent possible. There can be a parent company and a whole host of subsidiaries set up just to make it as hard as possible for you to file a claim. Our lawyers will get to work investigating the corporate structure to make sure that you sue the right entity. We will investigate to find any other entity responsible.

Whenever a truck driver is negligent behind the wheel, their employer is held legally responsible for it. The truck driver is an agent of the trucking company. Anything that the truck driver does is considered an action of their employer since they are an agent of the trucking company. For you, this means that there is a large insurance policy likely in place and corporate assets to pay a judgment if the truck driver’s negligence has injured you.

The Cargo Company

When cargo loading happens improperly, which can cause unevenly distributed items to shift during transit, it can lead the truck to tip over onto its side. In addition, improperly distributed cargo can also cause stress on the tires, leading to a tire blowout. Cargo companies want to load the trucks quickly to get them on their way. They do not want to be the cause of any delays because they can lose future business. As a result, they may take shortcuts or rush the job to get the truck moving.

The longer the cargo company takes to load the truck, the greater the chance that they can face blame for delays.

Trucks that are not fully loaded are the most prone to have rollover accidents because of cargo loading. When the accident occurs as a result of improperly loaded cargo, the cargo company will be held liable. It will take some investigation to establish cargo loading as the cause of the truck accident.

The Manufacturer

Sometimes the truck itself is defective or has defective components. When these defects, such as issues with the brakes, tires, or the engine, malfunction and cause the truck driver to lose control of the vehicle, the manufacturer may be held liable.

You will need to sue the manufacturer in a product liability lawsuit. This is another type of personal injury lawsuit where you file a claim against the company that was responsible for your injuries from a defective product. In a product liability claim, this can be anyone who was in the “stream of commerce.” This starts from the company that designed and made the truck to the dealer that sold the truck to the trucking company. Anyone who had a part in the sale of the defective truck can be responsible, but usually, you will sue the manufacturer.

There are different common grounds that you will find in a product liability lawsuit. First, you can argue that the defendant should be strictly liable for the injuries that happened due to the defective truck.

You might prove three primary types of defects:

  • Design defects
  • Manufacturing defects
  • Marketing defects

Beyond these, you can win a lawsuit against the manufacturer when you show that they were negligent or that they breached any warranties.

Product liability lawsuits can be very complex and difficult cases. They will require scientific evidence and expert testimony to show that the product was defective. At Zanes Law Injury Lawyers, we regularly work with experts to help prove product liability cases. We are not afraid to take on the biggest companies if their products cause injuries to our clients, and we look forward to the challenge of fighting for you.

Third-Party Maintenance Companies

Not every trucking company has an in-house maintenance staff. Some smaller companies may not have enough trucks to warrant hiring a full-time maintenance crew. Some may outsource their maintenance to another company. This saves them both time and money.

When this happens, the third-party maintenance company can be responsible for the accident. You can sue both them and the trucking company, and a jury can apportion the liability between all of the responsible defendants.

Another Driver on the Road

Truck accidents are not always as black-and-white as a crash between you and the other driver. Often, trucks are involved in multi-car pileups with several other vehicles. The driver of another car can be at fault because they did something like stop short in front of a truck or make an illegal lane change. In some cases, the truck may have hit you, but it was not to blame for the accident.

Of course, it is always better for you if the truck driver was responsible because they usually carry far more insurance. However, you can still recover from a third party if they were responsible for the accident.

How to Know Whom to Blame for a Truck Accident

Giving the list of who may be to blame for the truck accident is just a very small part of your legal process. The important thing is figuring out exactly who was responsible for the accident. If you take your case to court or file an insurance claim, you need to file it against the right person.

This is where your truck accident lawyer comes into the picture. All motor vehicle accidents require some level of investigation before you can be in a position to file a claim or lawsuit. Truck accidents require more investigation than the average case, given the scope of who may be to blame and the higher level of damages in your case.

With a truck accident, there are even more reasons to get to work right away to investigate the accident and begin the legal process. First, evidence can be lost very quickly. Physical evidence may be lost, and witness recollections may fade. The more evidence that vanishes, the harder it is to prove a claim.

Second, the trucking company is in physical possession of much of this evidence. There are recordkeeping requirements that mandate that they maintain records for a certain time. However, you should never underestimate the ability of a trucking company (whose very existence can be at stake) to make certain vital information “disappear.”

This can include black box information and driver and maintenance records. The sooner that you hire a lawyer, the quicker that you can get a litigation hold letter out to the trucking company. Directing them to preserve the necessary information that can help your claim.

As you can see, time is of the essence for a truck accident claim. You can assume that the trucking company will do everything it can to protect itself because it faces a potentially large liability. The longer you go without a lawyer, the more that you risk your legal rights.

Consulting with a Qualified Truck Accident Attorney

If you or a loved one has been injured in a truck accident due to the negligence of another party, it can leave you battling physical, emotional, and financial hurdles. But the good news is that a qualified truck accident attorney can help. At Zanes Law, we will help you fight for the compensation you deserve.

At Zanes Law, we will help you fight for the compensation you deserve. Truck accident claims are complex, but we will help cut through the red tape that the insurance company puts up that stands between you and compensation. The initial consultation is free, and you do not need to pay us anything unless you win your case.

Doug Zanes: Founding Attorney Raised in Douglas, Arizona, and went to college at Arizona State University and graduated from law school at St. Mary’s University School of Law in Texas. Doug began practicing law in Phoenix Arizona in 1997.
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