Knowing which laws apply to a truck accident case can be tricky, because it really means that you have to know about several different areas of the law. Fortunately, that's our specialty. In this article, we'll explain a little bit about which laws are the most pertinent to winning a truck accident case. Mind you, this won't be an exhaustive list - that would require a novel-length tome - but these are the most common ways we use the law to win cases for our clients. You've probably noticed that a lot of lawyers and attorney's offices are rather elusive when it comes to sharing information or telling you about your case -- we don't take that approach.
So here's what we'll try to answer on this page:
- What laws deal directly with truck accident cases?
- The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act
- The Texas Department of Transportation regulations
- Your local city ordinances
- The Texas Transportation Code
- Which other kinds of laws does my attorney need to know about?
- Knowing about statutory laws
- Knowing how to interpret common law
First, let's talk about applicable laws that are specific to trucks.
Whether we're talking about 18-wheelers, big rigs, flatbeds, box trucks, food trucks, etc., all vehicles carrying more than a certain weight are considered to be commercial vehicles, and are regulated accordingly by the federal government. Now, it's important to understand that there are no personal injury laws specific to crashes involving this kind of vehicle. Rather, there are many laws which tell truck drivers when and how to drive and maintain their trucks, and often times these laws bleed over into the realm of personal injury law.
Think of it like this: if you are hit by a car while riding a bicycle, you don't sue them under some special bicycle accident law. Instead, you just sue them under the normal personal injury laws of the state of Texas. That being said, since the accident happened while you were on a bike and since Texas indeed has laws related to bikes, it's safe to assume that your case will consist of both injury law and bicycle law.
In other words, truck accident cases are injury cases that also involve truck-specific laws, even though the case isn't based on laws specific to commercial vehicles. Truck-specific laws are just a feature of the case, not the foundation. So what truck-specific laws typically serve as a component of a truck accident case? Here are a few:
- The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act - The FMCSA (and its administration of the same name) is a set of laws that regulate virtually all aspects of operating large trucks, buses, and other commercial carriers. This set of laws covers everything from how many hours a driver can drive to weight restrictions for 18-wheelers all the way to what kinds of insurance coverage a Greyhound bus is required to carry. The FMCSA matters in truck accident cases because many of the mistakes leading to collisions that truckers make behind the wheel are not only negligent behavior (which is what general injury law deals with), they're also specific violations of the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Act.For instance, if a normal car driver fails to properly secure a load they're transporting on their roof rack and, as a result, it falls off their car and hurts you, you'd have to show the court how this failure to secure their cargo should be considered negligent conduct by the court (for which the court would then make them pay you). In that instance, you'd use general principles and a little common sense to show the jury that the car's driver was negligent. But since there are, in fact, specific laws that require truck drivers to inspect their cargo periodically, if the exact same thing happened, with the cargo falling from a tractor-trailer, you wouldn't have to invent an explanation from scratch to show why the driver's failure to properly secure cargo is negligence. Instead, the FMCSA already spells out that truck drivers are required to do this, so you'd simply cite this violation of the FMCSA as support for your allegations of negligence. After all, the trucker can't claim he wasn't negligent if he knowingly broke a law which caused your injury.
- Texas DOT Rules - The Texas Department of Transportation has promulgated rules related to how big trucks must be registered and inspected, and they also control licensing requirements for truck drivers. It's easy to see that if a truck driver was in violation of a regulation as set forth by TXDOT, he or she is acting negligently by definition.
- City Ordinances - Many Texas cities have rules that only apply to big trucks. Have you ever seen a sign that says, "No trucks over 20,000 lbs. on this road"? Again, even though that law has nothing to do with injury cases, it can certainly become an important part of one under the right circumstances. But city ordinances related to trucks don't just cover maximum loads on bridges and roads. In fact, cities such as Dallas, TX have laws which require 18-wheeler drivers to stay out of the inside lane of certain highways. Surely, you can see how an accident case involving an 18-wheeler that was driving in one of these lanes would lean heavily on this law.
- Texas Transportation Code - While most of the sections of the Texas Transportation Code apply to all motor vehicle traffic, this body of law also includes a great deal of truck-specific text. Like those discussed above, these laws can play an integral role in an injury case stemming from a truck accident.
The takeaway here is that there are indeed truck specific laws, even if there is no such thing as "truck accident law." To win a commercial vehicle accident case, you must be able to use general injury law to formulate your arguments against a negligent truck driver, even if you prove these arguments by showing that he or she violated one of the above truck-specific laws.
Above, we referenced "general personal injury law" and talked about how that is the basic building block of a truck accident case. Here's how it works:
For reasons dating back hundreds of years before America was even founded, our legal system includes what's termed "common law." Before courts had specific directives from a king or a legislature, they more or less had to figure things out on their own. Courts developed guiding principles ("common law") that governed whether a particular person or company were in the wrong. Later on, legislatures got in on the act and created their own laws ("statutes"). However, many common law principles remained at the courts' disposal. Enormous, dense laws books have been written about this very subject, but for our purposes, let's distinguish two types of law:
- Statutory law: a legislature creates a hard-and-fast rule that everyone should be able to understand and follow.
- Example: there are state laws mandating that fences around a pool be 10 feet tall or more to keep small children from entering the pool and drowning.
- Example: the federal government requires publicly-traded companies to report accurate profit-and-loss statements at the end of every year.
- Common law: a court applies a broad principle rooted in fairness and equity
- Example: a gun owner accidentally leaves his gun in his yard, a child finds it, and hurts himself. There's no law about "leaving guns in yards," instead, a court may find that the gun owner was generally negligent and thus responsible.
- Example: an art dealer knows a painting is a fake, but tells her buyer that it's probably the Mona Lisa. A court will likely find that the dealer committed fraud.
Now, compare these two types of examples. One is strict---either you have the right height of fence or you don't---and not open to much interpretation. The other is more open to interpretation. Think of general legal principles like negligence the way you would personal characteristics such kindness. For the fence example, all you'd need is a measuring tape. To evaluate whether someone should be considered kind, you'd need a lot of facts: how does the person treat their parents? Their employees? Store clerks? Someone they have nothing in common with? Negligence is measured in the same way.
Recap: How these two types of law interact in truck accident cases.
Since there aren't specific laws against 18-wheelers hitting other drivers, in order to win a truck accident case, your attorney will need to prove the truck driver was negligent. See more about negligence here. But trucking is a highly-regulated industry with federal and state laws dictating how trucking companies and their drivers are supposed to behave. Trucks are required to employ many kinds of safety equipment, obey numerous safety procedures, and ensure compliance with voluminous rules about how long drivers can drive. When a trucking company violates one of these requirements, that's evidence that the trucking company failed to live up to its responsibilities to the general public. Sometimes, one violation of a statute/regulation may be close to enough to prove that the trucking company or its drover was negligent:
- Driving over the speed limit and running into the back of a car. (Speed limits are hard laws that we all must obey. )
- Driving without the requisite safety brakes and not being able to stop at a light as a result. (If the failed brakes are the cause of the accident, then that regulatory violation is evidence of negligence.)
- Driving under the influence and causing a crash as a result. (If drugs and/or alcohol were present in the driver's system and the driver was unable to control his vehicle, that's substantial evidence of negligence.)
Nonetheless, most cases involve acts that aren't against any particular statute:
- A driver failing to look when she changed lanes
- A driver distractedly talking on a cell phone and missing a disabled car parked on the side of the highway
- A driver fatigued from not getting enough sleep
A stark number of trucking accident cases involve a mixture of the two categories enumerated above. A competent truck accident lawyer knows not only how courts and juries typically construe what is "negligent," but they will know the rules and regulations of the road.
Don't make any assumptions, get the right help
Hopefully it's apparent, but we know what we're talking about when it comes to trucking accident cases. We've been handling them for over 25 years and we have a track record to prove it. If you're unsure which laws might apply to your particular case, or you don't think your current attorney knows either, just give us a call at (855)-326-0000 and we'd be happy to point you in the right direction.
If you want to get some more information about winning your truck accident case, read on:
- Proving Liability in Truck Accident Cases
- Common Fact Patterns in Truck Accident Cases (And What You Need To Know)
- What You Need to Know About A Truck Driver's Insurance