Trucking Companies May Be Liable For Driver’s Accidents

The weight disparity between a typical automobile and a commercial truck can lead to devastating accidents. The average car weighs around 3,000 pounds while an 18-wheeler averages closer to 80,000 pounds. Because of the massive amounts of property damage and potential life-threatening injuries that can result from these accidents, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and National Traffic Safety Administration conducted a Large Truck Crash Causation Study to determine the primary reasons for serious crashes involving large commercial trucks.

The study found 73 percent of semi-truck accidents involved another vehicle and 28 percent were the result of recognition errors on the part of the driver. A recognition error was defined as one where the "driver was inattentive, was distracted by something inside or outside the vehicle or failed to observe the situation adequately for some other reason." Unfortunately, these types of accidents are often avoidable.

Recognition errors, or distracted driving practices, have gained media and legislative attention in the last few years. Laws have recently been passed focused on distracted driving in an attempt to reduce the high rate of death associated with these accidents. In 2009 alone almost 5,500 people died from crashes involving a distracted driver.

Distracted driving is a serious issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states distraction-related accidents represented 16 percent of traffic fatalities. This issue is present not only with passenger vehicles, but also with commercial trucks. As a result, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently released a rule that prohibits commercial truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cellphones while operating their vehicles.

Details of Changes to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations

The rule is intended to help put an end to distracted driving and is estimated to impact four million commercial vehicle drivers. It is supported by FMCSA research showing use of a hand-held cellphone requires drivers to take "several risky steps beyond what is required for using a hands-free mobile phone, including searching and reaching for the phone." The study found driver's reaching for a phone were three times more likely to be involved in a crash while those dialing a cellphone were six times more likely to cause a truck collision.

If drivers are found in violation of the new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration law, they can face a fine of $2,750 for every violation and multiple offenses could lead to loss of their commercial operator's license.

Drivers may not be the only parties at fault. If a company requires a driver to use a handheld phone when driving the company can face a fine of $11,000. The FMCSA rules specifically state that an employer will be held liable for violation of the rule if it requires or even allows the use of hand-held cellphones on the job. It further states that an employer will be held accountable "if the employee was doing his or her job, carrying out company business or otherwise acting on the employer's behalf when the violation occurred."

Unfortunately, these fines may not be significant enough to deter large companies from using cellphones. However, the threat of large civil suits may force companies to adjust their practices. If a commercial motor vehicle driver uses a cellphone in line with company protocol and the cellphone use leads to an accident, the company may also be liable for any resulting injuries and property damage.

The theory that holds an employer liable for an employee's accident is referred to as "respondeat superior" in the legal world. The employer is viewed as having some degree of control over their employees and can be found partly responsible for their actions.

Use of Cell Phone Records Against Commercial Truck Companies

Although hand-held cellphone use is now illegal, it may be difficult to tell if a commercial truck driver is using a phone at the time of the accident. These vehicles are much larger than most automobiles, and it can be difficult for law enforcement to clearly view the drivers' usage. Even if a witness were able to see the truck driver, the odds may be low that anyone was observing the driver prior to the accident.

However, the advent of technology has led to development of the tools needed to determine if and when a cellphone was in use. Cellphone records can provide proof that a driver was on the phone at the time of an accident and can even distinguish between use of voice service or texting, which is also illegal.

Violation of this federal law will aid a truck accident attorney in proving the trucking company was at fault in the accident. If you or a loved one is injured in a truck accident, compensation may be available to cover medical and rehabilitative expenses as well as pain and suffering. It is important to seek the counsel of an experienced truck accident attorney to better ensure your legal rights and remedies are protected.