As long as the law has existed, there have been the twin impulses to find legal ways to get around it and to use the protections of law as a shield against other legal actions. This could rightly be termed a quest for technicalities.
A great example of this is that it is well-known that alerting others to dangerous conditions can usually reduce liability in the event of an accident. That's why every time there is a spill in a store, out comes the "wet floor" sign. Of course, like any solid legal principle, such as the duty to alert others to a hazard, it can be misused.
While "wet floor" signs fulfill a duty to warn others, not all signs are so innocuous. Rather than attempting to fulfill a duty, "Not Responsible for Broken Windshield" signs attempt to shirk a duty to properly secure cargo, under the guise of warning motorists about a hazard.
These seem like typical warning signs that we see all over the place, warning us of a danger and providing some protection to a business-owner in the event of an injury. There's just one problem, such signs have no legal validity. They're concoctions of sign-makers and trucking company legal departments trying to be too-clever by half. In many instances, these signs are advertised in a deceptive manner, which infuses these signs with wishful legal properties that don't actually exist.
Why Is There a Market for Debris Safety Signs?
It is a well-established legal principle that anyone hauling cargo on the road has a duty to make sure that the cargo is properly secured. We've detailed the consequences and liability for cargo related truck accidents here, here, and here. The short version of all of those articles is that if a driver fails to properly secure cargo and that cargo falls into the roadway, the driver is responsible for any injuries that result.
This is a particular issue for trucks that haul aggregates, like sand, stone, and gravel. There are few drivers out there who haven't been behind a truck that was spewing rocks and debris into the roadway. These small particles are difficult to secure, particularly at highway speeds. Is a truck driver really supposed to assume liability for any property damage or injuries that result from such difficult cargo? Couldn't they just get around liability by alerting other drivers on the road that some of their cargo is invariably going to be blow on to the roadway, so other drivers should be on the lookout?
That appears to be the thinking behind a bunch of signs that are affixed to the backs of trucks. My favorite one is this one:
It's amazing how authoritative a sign can appear. Other drivers are warned to keep away and for good measure, the driver is disclaiming liability if they fail to comply. The company that sells this particular sign is even more assertive in their claims. First, they claim the sign is Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliant. The seller also states, "This Stay Back 100 Ft. Not Responsible For Damage To Windshields Sign not just reduces your liability; it also shows you are a responsible driver."
While those signs may be slick marketing, each of the claims is completely ridiculous. First, OSHA is charged with regulating workplace, not highway safety. An OSHA compliant sign on a truck that is on a public roadway is a nice sales gimmick, but it would be the same as having a sign approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, irrelevant.
As for the other two contentions that these signs reduce liability or show that someone is a responsible driving, I can't really see how either statement is true. In order to reduce liability, one would have to believe that placing a sign on a vehicle absolves the owner of their duty to properly secure their cargo. On its face, that argument is absurd. I suppose it is somewhat responsible that a truck driver would alert you of their intention to launch missiles at your vehicle before they do it, but it would be far more responsible if they secured their cargo in the first place.
This would be a laughing matter and a low-rent scam that would hardly be worth getting worked up over, if not for the sometimes catastrophic real world consequences of cargo related accidents.
The Deadly Nature of Cargo Related Accidents
Some might suggest that cargo accidents are pretty rare. While it may be anecdotal, we've come across two of these types of accident in just the last couple of weeks. On Thursday, March 2, 2017, a shipping container bolt apparently came loose from a truck, flew threw the windshield of another vehicle, striking Paul Hoffman, 60, and killing him instantly. The incident occurred on Highway 146 near Wharton Weems Blvd.
There is no word yet whether police have been able to identify the truck involved in this accident and Laporte police are asking anyone with information about that truck to contact them.
While some might be tempted to chalk this accident up as an isolated incident, it comes on the heels of another truck debris-related injury that happened Thursday February 23, 2017 in Lawrence Township, New Jersey. According to reports, 23-year-old Ashley Wagner was struck by debris that flew off of a dump truck as she was driving down I-295. These same reports indicate that Ms. Wagner suffered a serious head injury and had to be taken to the hospital.
Unlike the Laporte, Texas accident, police were able to identify and locate the dump truck involved in this accident.
A Sign Doesn't Eliminate Liability for Truck Debris Accidents
Let's imagine that I decide one day that I no longer want another person to be within 10 feet of me, ever. One might suggest that there's little chance of that happening, because I cannot stop every single person from getting within my 10 foot bubble. In a clever moment, I decide that I will print up t-shirts and hats that read, "Caution: Stay Back 10 Feet or I Will Hit You."
Suppose that someone gets within 10 feet of me and I clock them and cause them a significant injury. They file suit against me and I have my attorney go before the jury and argue that I warned the person I hit, so it was really their own fault they were injured. Is there a jury on earth who would buy that argument for a second? Most likely they would reason that it doesn't matter what the warning said, I can't just go around punching people who get too close to me.
Why would they decide this way? The answer is simple; I don't get to decide that I no longer have a duty not to punch people. If we could simply opt out of the laws and legal duties that we didn't really like, there would be no point to having a law in the first place. The legal duty to not hit people is meant to bind me. The only two ways to unbind myself are to get someone to sign a contract saying that they agree that I can hit them, or to go through the legislative process and get the community to agree that none of us have a duty not to hit one another.
Truck debris warning signs are in the same boat as my hypothetical "Stay Back 10 Feet T-Shirts." It is a truck driver unilaterally saying that their duty to properly secure their cargo no longer applies. The other motorists on the road don't get to agree to this opt-out. The community doesn't get a say through its legislatures. That is why these signs have no legal validity.
People like to suggest that lawyers are to blame for our "overly litigious society." Some of that blame is probably deserved. However, there are a fair number of people who exploit the fear of lawsuits to make money. In the process they sell useless products based upon people's fears and lack of understanding of the law. The makers of these signs fall into that category.
It's likely that most people who use these signs do so with good intentions. However, I can't shake the feeling that some legal departments at large trucking companies like these signs because they trick people into believing that there is nothing that they can do when debris from a truck damages their property or injures them. After all, if these signs are "OSHA-compliant," it must mean that even the government has given them their blessing.
At the end of the day, trucking companies cannot simply opt-out of rules that can cost them money when they're broken. This truth places these signs in a category that is best described as American legal folklore. While it may not be as egregious as myths like pedestrians always have the right of way and insurance carriers have to pay accident victims, meaningless signage creates a legal fiction that deceives the public.