Determining liability after a trucking accident can become a logistical nightmare. Not only are truck accidents catastrophic from an injury perspective, they are also very complex from a legal standpoint because multiple parties can all be held liable.
Truck accidents can be caused by many circumstances. And there are even no fault trucking accidents, as well. Depending on the specific circumstances, either the truck driver, the trucking company, and even the truck manufacturer can all be held liable for the accident. Multi-vehicle semi-truck accidents, in particular, are very difficult to assess.
California is a comparative negligence state, which means that an at fault driver may be entitled to file a personal injury lawsuit for damages, even if they were partially at fault for causing a trucking accident.
1.1 Negligence Or Strict Liability?
While numerous parties can potentially be held liable for a truck accident victims’ injuries and losses, proving liability will typically involve one (and possibly both) of two legal theories: negligence and strict liability.
Let’s examine negligence as it relates to a trucking accident. According to California negligence law, any truck driver found guilty of negligence can be held liable for causing injuries and damages to another motorist. A driver who was injured by a negligent truck driver is entitled to file a personal injury lawsuit. However, the aggrieved party must prove that the truck driver was negligent in causing the accident.
There are three (3) elements for demonstrating negligence in a California trucking accident:
- The truck driver owed the accident victim a duty of care
- The truck driver breached their duty of care through negligence
- The truck driver’s breach was the significant factor in causing a victim’s losses
A duty of care is a basic legal requirement for every truck driver to watch out for other drivers and use reasonable caution while behind the wheel.
For example, a duty of care for a truck driver would require that driver to:
- Watch for pedestrians, other vehicles, and obstacles
- Control the movement and speed of their truck
- Use reasonable care while operating their truck
Let’s consider an example: Let’s say that Alicia was driving north on I-5, 50 miles north of Los Angeles. This portion of highway sees a constant flow of very heavy commercial trucking traffic. Alicia recognizes the danger and keeps her eyes on the road, does not text, and maintains a safe speed.
Directly behind her is Robert, an experienced commercial truck driver. Robert is so confident in his driving abilities that he takes a risk and exceeds the legal limit for hours he should be on the road. Despite his experience, Robert is nevertheless exhausted.
A sudden gust of wind kicks up a dust storm. The dust is so thick that it creates issues with visibility. Given how tired Robert is, he is slow to react. He slams on the brakes but can’t avoid hitting Alicia.
In this example, Alicia has no fault. Objectively speaking, it is not Robert’s fault that a dust storm impeded his visibility of the road. However, Robert shouldn’t have been on the road. Therefore, Robert was negligent and his very presence on the highway was a source of danger not only for Alicia, but for everyone else.
Despite the visibility issues, Robert would almost certainly be liable for Alicia’s injuries and losses.
Let’s consider the second theory of liability in many truck accident cases, which is known as Strict liability.
According to California strict liability law, designers, manufacturers and even any companies involved in a product’s chain of distribution can all be held liable if one of their defective products contributes towards causing a truck accident. In strict liability cases, negligence will not factor when determining liability, because any of these companies can be found liable whether or not they made any mistakes that contributed to the trucking accident.
Strict liability claims can be based on
- Faulty accelerator pedals
- Faulty engine/transmission parts
- Faulty tires
- Faulty brakes
- Faulty cargo ties or straps
Let’s consider an example: Imagine that Fred is on his way to work at a manufacturing plant. He exits the 710 freeway on Slauson. At this hour of the morning, there is heavy truck traffic both exiting and entering the freeway in this particular intersection.
Directly behind Fred is Joe, a brand new truck driver. Objectively speaking, Joe is a bit nervous behind the wheel. However, he has been well trained and does know what he is doing. Fred and Joe are both waiting at a red light, eyes on the road.
As the light turns green, both men accelerate. Suddenly, the right tire on Joe’s cab explodes for no reason. The explosion causes Joe to lose control of his truck, which ends up side swiping Fred. Fred is not injured, but his vehicle is badly damaged.
In this example, neither Fred nor Joe are responsible for the accident or damage caused to Fred’s vehicle. After a thorough accident investigation, it was determined that the tire which exploded was defective.
Fred would therefore be entitled to file a products liability claim against the tire manufacturer and distributor for damage caused to his car.
In summary, if a defective part causes -- or contributes to causing -- a trucking accident, an injured victim may have a number of possible sources to seek compensation from.
1.2 At Fault Truck Driver
All trucks are subject to state and federal laws and regulations to minimize accident risks. However, some truck drivers and commercial trucking companies will ignore safety laws in order to meet their deadlines and maximize profits.
Due to the immense pressure a truck driver is under to meet his or her deadlines, the potential for mistakes and negligent driving can exponentially increase. For example, according to Vehicle Code 21702 VC, it is a misdemeanor for a truck driver in the state of California to spend more than twelve consecutive hours on the road in a 24-hour period. It goes without saying that a truck driver who violates these hour limits is at an increased risk of causing harm to others.
A truck driver who is found in violation of California’s safety regulations and causes an accident, may be liable to an injured driver for their losses. The majority of all truck accidents are caused by a truck driver who was not using reasonable care while driving or who was in violation of safety regulations.
Truck driver negligence may include:
1.3 At Fault Trucking Company
- Distracted driving
- Driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Not abiding by safety regulations
- Not following traffic signals
- Unsafe lane changes
- Not yielding the right-of-way
- Texting and driving
The actual commercial trucking company can also be found negligent for causing a trucking accident. Trucking companies may intentionally or recklessly violate transportation regulations or safety requirements to increase their profit margins. When these violations contribute to causing a trucking accident, that company may be held liable for any injuries or damages caused.
Examples of trucking company negligence include:
- Overloaded trailers
- Allowing overweight vehicles
- Poor driver hiring and training practices
- Negligent retention of underqualified or underperforming employees
- Encouraging drivers to forego sleep and hour restrictions
- Allowing trucks to carry unbalanced cargo
- Not properly maintaining trucks
- Allowing and encouraging drivers to operate their trucks in violation of safety laws
There are California and federal regulations that exist to limit truck size, weight, and route designations for trucks. Unfortunately, many commercial trucking companies will intentionally violate these safety regulations. They may also falsify their documentation process in order to hide evidence of their deliberate negligence. This is reckless and can also subject a trucking company to punitive damages for negligence. There are also instances when a truck driver flees the scene of an accident, which have their own unique set of circumstances
Let’s consider an example: Let’s say that a local Glendale trucking company is short on drivers. Rather than diligently training and hiring a well screened and professionally trained fleet of drivers, they instead recruit a motley group of drivers with previous substance abuse issues.
This group of drivers promises to give up drugs, passes a drug test, and begins work. A few weeks after, one of the drivers relapses and drives while under the influence. Unfortunately, this driver’s negligence causes a serious accident which kills two people.
In this example, not only is the driver guilty of negligence, but the trucking company that hired and trained him would also be responsible to the victims for their losses.