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Who Is Liable if an 18-Wheeler Underride Guard Fails?

A semi-trailer typically sits higher off the ground than the bumpers of many passenger vehicles, which means when a car hits the rear or side of that trailer there's a strong risk that it will travel underneath in what's commonly called an underride accident. Such collisions are often devastating to the people in the car, which is why the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires semi-trucks to have impact guards meant to prevent underride wrecks. Unfortunately those guards don't always work as intended, so who's liable if one fails?

Answer: If a semi-trailer and and its underride guards were faulty or not in compliance with the law, the company that owns the trailer and/or the manufacturer that made it are liable for the injuries caused by an underride collision. 

The Rule

Each trailer and semitrailer with a gross vehicle weight rating of 4,536 kg (10,000 pounds) or more, and manufactured on or after January 26, 1998, must be equipped with a rear impact guard that meets the requirements of 49 CFR 571.223, in effect at the time the vehicle was manufactured. When the rear impact guard is installed on the trailer or semitrailer, the vehicle must, at a minimum, meet the requirements of 49 CFR 571.224 in effect at the time the vehicle was manufactured.

49 CFR § 393.86

Long story short, the Code of Federal Regulations says semi-trailers made after January 1998 must have rear underride guards that meet certain minimum strength and resistance requirements. Unfortunately some trailers don't meet those standards, and when people crash with those disaster often follows.

How Might an Underride Guard Fail in a Crash?

The simple presence of an underride guard (or "Mansfield bar") isn't enough to guarantee it will successfully prevent a vehicle from traveling beneath a semi-trailer. A guard can fail during the critical moments of a crash for several reasons, such as:

  • Improper installation—poor welds, unsecured bolts, attached too high up;
  • Being the wrong size for the trailer;
  • Not meeting federal strength or impact requirements;
  • Poor maintenance leading to failure from wear or prior damage; and
  • Poor manufacturing or defective design by its maker.

Those aren't the only possibilities, but whatever a failure's cause the effect is a vital piece of safety equipment being essentially useless because someone either took improper action or took none at all. In such cases, they should be held responsible for any injuries or deaths their decisions caused.

The Answer May Affect Any Lawsuit that Follows

Depending on how and why an underride guard failed, any lawsuit that follows may involve a negligence claim against the trucking company, a products liability claim against the manufacturer of the trailer, or both.

The basis of a negligence claim against the trucking company would likely be that they improperly installed or failed to maintain the underride guard to a degree that it didn't perform as intended during a collision, or a jury may find that they're liable simply because they chose to purchase a fleet of trailers without adequate underride protection in the first place. Proving either position would likely require a thorough investigation: Forensic analysis of the truck and its parts, examining the company's maintenance records and safety violation history, deposing employees to talk about any safety hazards they witnessed, and many other steps would be taken to find negligence leading to unsafe trailers.

From a products liability perspective, the focus would be more on the design of the trailer itself rather than how its end-users treated it. A products liability attorney might argue that the truck could and should have been designed differently, in a way that would have prevented the harm done. Maybe it should have had wider or reinforced rear guards, or if the victim T-boned the trailer then maybe side guards should have been installed (even if they aren't legally required currently). Proving that a manufacturer made a faulty product often requires analysis and testimony from industry experts.

In some cases responsibility may be divided between the trucking company and the manufacturer; for example, one could argue that the trailer was faulty before it left the factory but the trucking company used it anyway. The approach of any particular case would likely depend heavily on its specifics.

A Good Attorney Can Help after an Underride Crash

Hundreds of people die every year in underride accidents, but even those who survive often face traumatic injury and significant impact to their ability to work and their overall quality of life. If a faulty or defective underride guard is proven the cause of all that suffering, the company that negligently put it on the road should be held accountable for the terrible damage that followed.

Doing so is rarely if ever simple, however. Companies and their insurers have strong incentives to defend themselves and avoid responsibility if they can, meaning both the trucking company and the manufacturer would likely try to deflect or dispute blame. Ensuring they can't requires careful investigation, clear evidence, and the ability to apply them both to make a strong case, which is why having an experienced truck accident attorney in your corner can be invaluable.

The Texas truck accident lawyers of Grossman Law Offices have over 30 years' experience helping people injured in 18-wheeler wrecks all over the country. If you were hurt or lost a loved one in an underride accident, call Grossman Law Offices today for a free consultation.

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