Lawsuits Against Distracted Truck Drivers
This article discusses how distracted 18-wheeler drivers can cause crashes, and the legal ramifications when they do. While the vast majority of semi-truck drivers are safe and highly skilled professionals, there are still far too many truck drivers who take their eyes off the road to eat, talk on the phone, text, or even watch TV while driving. As you can imagine, collisions caused by this lack of attention can result in significant injury or death to innocent motorists. But while the driver's fault may appear obvious in these situations, it is still vital for you to prove that the truck driver was committing these acts at the time of the collision in order to obtain fair compensation from their employer.
Questions Answered on This Page:
- What kinds of distractions can pull a trucker's focus away from the road?
- Who is responsible when a trucker causes an accident by being distracted?
- What kind of lawsuit can be filed against a distracted trucker and their employer?
- Is a lawyer really necessary?
Types of Distraction
While driving a car is relatively easy for most people with experience behind the wheel, driving a semi-truck for a living is a different story altogether. When you spend up to 11 hours a day rolling down a highway that seems to go on forever, the monotony can make any distraction seem appealing. Despite the often-dull nature of their occupation, a tractor-trailer's driver must maintain their focus at all times, and even the slightest momentary lapse in concentration, judgment, or execution can lead to disaster. The ways for a commercial driver to become distracted are numerous, including:
- Eating - Another way truck drivers can make quicker deliveries is by eating on the go. A stop at a sit-down restaurant could take as long as an hour, but going through a fast food chain's drive thru can be completed in a matter of minutes, with the truck driver quickly back on the road and chowing down. The problem with doing this while driving an 18-wheeler, as opposed to a car, is that a big-rig is much harder to maneuver, shift, and stop. Even when a car is standard transmission, it only typically has five gears at tops. On the other hand, 18-wheelers are always manually operated with a multi-speed transmission and multi-speed differential. Thus, shifting a big rig compared to a car is roughly akin to riding a 10-speed bicycle as opposed to a one-speed. If the truck driver looks down for a second, then this could lead to a wide variety of problems. First, the truck driver might miss a sudden hazard or change in road direction or condition. Second, he may have problems reacting to the change. Beyond just the need to rest, the imperative to park before eating is one of the main reasons truck drivers are required to take periodic 30-minute breaks.
- Using the phone - Twenty five years ago, the big distraction for truck drivers trying to keep themselves company was the CB radio. But those are dinosaurs now, as everyone owns a cell phone. Truck drivers who are spending a week or more on the road can keep in touch with friends or loved ones by talking or texting on the phone while they drive. As we described above, driving a truck takes two hands and not one, so texting and talking while driving is even more dangerous than doing so while driving a passenger car. The danger presented by cell phones has been made very clear by the federal government, as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration banned texting by truck drivers in January of 2010 and followed this ruling by banning the use of cell phones in general by truck drivers back in November of 2011. Still, as with any law, while most people follow it, some will break it. Consequently, texting and talking while trucking is still a major problem on our roads.
- Dealing with problems within the cab - When a truck driver is rolling down the road and a problem comes up inside the cab, there's a pretty decent chance they'll try to deal with it then and there instead of pulling over first. Say, for instance, that, while braking, the truck driver's backpack flies off the front seat and onto the floor. While they really should just pull over or wait until their next break to get it, they may elect to grab it in the moment instead, and even that momentary distraction can be dangerous. In one recent case, we represented the mother of a woman who was violently killed by an 18-wheeler because the temperature had dropped and the truck driver leaned over to get his gloves out of his glove compartment. In just the time it took for him to do so, his vehicle lost control, swerving onto the shoulder and striking the woman.
- Music and radio - Very few truck drivers are comfortable driving in complete silence, whether they fill it with music, talk radio, or even books on tape. As part of doing so, they may take their eyes off the road to change a CD, fiddle with the radio dial, or to find a particular tune on their phone. In addition, even a truck driver who is passively listening to a book on tape may just get lost in the story and forget about the task at hand.
- Television - Have you ever looked inside one of the extended cabs some of the truck drivers out there have on their trucks? It's like a tiny rolling apartment, complete with satellite television and a bed. While a truck driver can't very well climb in bed while he's driving, he can leave the television on to listen to a ball game or a movie, potentially leading to excessive engrossment that takes his mind off the driving task.
- Computers and internet - While you wouldn't immediately think about computers being a distraction to drivers, they are. Truckers will occasionally bring laptops on the road with them and then email friends or surf the Internet while driving. We recently litigated a case where a truck driver hit one of our clients, and his laptop was not only found powered up when the accident occurred, but his Internet browser was still on, displaying content he probably didn't want anyone else to see.
- Tandem driving and passengers - In order to drive longer distances and haul more goods, some truck drivers work in teams called "tandem drivers." While one driver rests, the other drives, and the truck can keep moving without having to stop. However, it's not uncommon for the person who isn't driving to remain in the passenger seat, where they may say or do something to distract the driver. This can also be a problem if the truck driver picks up any passengers, which, aside from potential liability in the event of a crash, explains why most trucking companies forbid their truckers from picking up hitchhikers or bringing along passengers.
- External stimuli - Of course, a truck driver could be distracted by anything he or she sees along the road, whether it's a peculiar car with a motorcycle front chassis attached to the backseat of an old Volkswagen bug, a clever billboard, or the pretty young lady in the car that's passing the truck. No matter what else is going on around the truck, the truck driver needs to keep his or her eyes on the road.
In a lot of cases, looking at the ECM data (black box information) on a semi-truck or 18-wheeler will give you insight into what happened during the accident in question. It's a bit like looking at someone's browser history on their computer. For example, ECM data can be used to determine whether the brakes were applied at all before a collision occurred, which can indicate whether the driver was paying attention to the road. Looking at cellphone records can be helpful as well. By looking at the data from nearby cell towers, we can tell when a cellphone last sent out a signal, or a "ping," to determine whether a trucker was using their phone at the time of the wreck.
There are all kinds of ways to investigate and prove that a trucker was distracted, but the key takeaway is that you need proof, otherwise a jury won't be inclined to believe your word against the truck driver's, and the trucking company may well be able to have your suit thrown out altogether for lack of evidence.
Holding the Trucking Company Responsible
In the late 2000s, we had a case that involved a distracted trucker. A young man was in a fender bender along a highway here in rural Texas, which caused his car to become disabled in the middle of the road. A semi-truck driver came upon the accident scene, but didn't brake in time, crashing into the back of the young man's car and killing him. After the police arrived, the trucker swore that the accident happened right in front of him and that he had no time to brake.
After our team of experts investigated the accident and got ahold of the truck's internal video surveillance footage, we found that the trucker was actually hundreds of yards away when the young man's accident happened. As it turned out, the trucker had plenty of time to stop, had he been looking at the road in front of him instead of a video on his cellphone.
Needless to say, we took that evidence and made sure that a jury would see how irresponsible this trucker was that day -- and also how irresponsible the trucking company for hiring him in the first place. They ended up settling out of court, and our clients were compensated for the loss of their son. But that wasn't an automatic process: we had to prove that the trucker was distracted and successfully argue that his behavior constituted negligence. Once we established that, we were able to hold the trucker and, by extension, his employer accountable for the young man's death.
Grossman Law Offices Is Ready to Hold Distracted Truck Drivers Accountable
Trucking companies are expected to hire trained truck drivers who have been instructed on the importance of staying focused on the road and allowing themselves sufficient rest. When a driver fails to do so and that leads to a collision, the law allows their employer to be held liable through a civil lawsuit.
If you were injured in an accident with an 18-wheeler, we encourage you to call Grossman Law Offices today for a free consultation at 855-326-0000 (toll free). As with any legal issue, it's not what you think you know but what you can prove that matters. Acting now is critically important, so that a professional investigator can begin looking into what happened as soon as possible.
Related Articles for Further Reading:
- How Does Commercial Truck Accident Insurance Work?
- Understanding Commercial Vehicle Weight Restrictions
- A Truck Driver Rear-Ended Me. What Now?