While most commercial truck accidents involve a truck colliding with another vehicle, there is a small, but not insignificant number of accidents that are caused when cargo form the trailer falls off and obstructs the roadway. While some may be tempted to look at these accidents as "just another truck accident," the fact is that there are significant differences between these types of accidents and those that involve collisions between vehicles.
What many people who don't follow the trucking industry may be unaware of is that the company that owns the truck isn't always the company that owns the trailer. There is a decent-sized portion of the trucking industry that involves drivers called to third-parties, hooking up to a trailer, and hauling it to another destination. In these instances, not only does the trucking company rarely own the trailer, but it is unlikely that they had any say in loading the cargo.
This complicates matters for those who are injured or killed in these accidents because it creates the possibility that their are two parties who have liability, not just one. A truck accident is never a simple matter, when the number of potential defendants multiplies, so to does the complexity of holding negligent parties accountable.
Determining Liability for Cargo-Related Truck Accidents
We've spoken before about some issues that arise when trailers are improperly loaded, but we've never discussed what happens when something falls off of a trailer.
While Grossman Law Offices has litigated several cases where a dangerous load caused an accident that injured or killed someone, we were again reminded of the problem by an accident in the news last week.
According to reports, a truck was hauling forklifts about 10 miles north of Madisonville, Texas. For unknown reasons, the driver veered off of the roadway, struck a barrier, and during an attempt to return the truck to the road, one of the forklifts fell off the trailer. 59-year-old Marcus Harrison was driving when he collided with the forklift and was killed by the impact.
While it is impossible to know from a news report where the fault for this tragedy lies, there are two likely culprits. Either the forklifts were not properly secured for transport, in which case the person or business who loaded the forklifts on to the trailer would be responsible, or the truck operator's driving was so reckless that it jarred loose the forklift, which was properly attached.
What is guaranteed is that anytime an accident involves something falling from a trailer, it complicates the process of determining liability. One of the hallmarks of commercial truck insurance companies is that they will quickly attempt to blame whomever they can for their driver's bad conduct. This can be a mystery vehicle that swerved in front of their driver, road conditions, or any number of standard defenses. These tactics greatly complicate truck accident cases, making it next to impossible for the victims to get proper compensation on their own, or even get the insurance company to admit the fault of their driver.
Guess what makes this strategy even more effective? The existence of a plausible third-party to blame for the accident. Whenever cargo comes off of a trailer and the trucking company didn't load the cargo, they have a ready-made third party to point the finger at. I should note that the reason this strategy works is because sometimes it really is the third-party whose negligence is the reason for the accident. However, I've seen enough of these types of accidents to know that whether it really is the third-party's fault or not, that's who the trucker's insurance company is going to blame.
At the same time, when there's an accident like the one in Madisonville, and it claims the life of another motorist, like Marcus Harrison, the insurance company representing the trailer owner isn't going to accept blame without a fight either. They're likely to point the finger right back at the trucking company and say that it was the operator's driving that caused the cargo to come loose and triggered the accident.
One might be tempted to say that this finger-pointing resembles children trying to blame one another for doing something wrong, in the vain hopes that if no one confesses then no one will be punished. Most of us know from hard-won experience that this strategy doesn't work. However, because of how the law is structured, this strategy can frustrate those who have been injured in these accidents.
As we like to remind folks, under Texas law, nothing can compel someone to pay compensation after an accident except for a duly constituted jury. Short of going to trial and winning, obtaining compensation depends on negotiating a settlement that is fair to all sides. The only way to get such a settlement is if a trucking company, trailer owner, or insurance company believes that there is a credible threat that a jury will make them pay even more money.
When you have two companies pointing the finger at one another, each self-assured that they have been wronged by the other company and shouldn't be on the hook for any compensation, you have very little leverage. Each will believe that at trial they'll be able to put enough blame on the other that they won't owe a thing.
To obtain compensation, a victim has to know what exactly happened. The only way to do that is with an expert investigation that scientifically sifts through the evidence to determine blame.
Let me return to the accident in Madisonville for a second. I've seen the fact pattern in news reports of hundreds of truck accidents. That experience, coupled with other work at the firm and familiarity with truck accidents, means that a fair bit of the time, I can piece together pretty accurately what happened and who has potential liability. All of that being said, I have no idea where the liability will be in this accident.
Certainly, it doesn't help that the truck driver went off the roadway. That's definitely a red flag. However, determining fault will likely revolve around whether it would be expected that a properly secured forklift would come loose under similar circumstances. An answer to that question will likely require a professional accident reconstructionist to sort through the evidence, calculate the forces involved, and then render his or her best judgment on who is to blame.
Cases involving liability disputes between trucking companies and trailer owners often turn into battles of experts, given that their attorneys are just as capable of hiring reconstructionists to hopefully bolster their claim as is a victim's attorney.
If all of this sounds like a rather messy affair, these types of accidents certainly can be. However, a complex legal situation is not an impossible one.
Overcoming Finger-Pointing Trucking Companies
Cases where the trailer owner may be liable for an accident, while uncommon, are certainly not rare. Grossman Law Offices has been involved in several cases with this type of fact pattern. One particular case near Corpus Christi stands out.
In that case, a driver was hauling a 40' piece of steel on the back of a flatbed trailer. Unfortunately, the trailer was only 30' long. While driving at night, the truck driver crossed through the intersection. Another car came along and could see that the trailer had cleared the intersection, but was unable to see the 10' portion of the steel slab that was hanging off the back of the trailer. The resulting collision between the car and the piece of steel can only be described as horrific.
While the truck driver certainly had some responsibility for driving with a load that wasn't properly illuminated, our investigation turned up the fact that the steel was loaded by a manufacturer on to the inadequate trailer for shipping. Essentially, the truck driver rolled up, hooked up the trailer, and drove off. It was the manufacturer who chose to use trailers that were unfit for their purpose and they had been doing so for years.
In that instance, the manufacturer fought hard to blame the trucking company, but ultimately it was to no avail, as we were able to show that their negligence was the cause of the accident. In a truly bizarre twist, the company that had been using trailers that were too short for their product for years, attempted to argue that the truck driver had a duty not to take the trailer if they felt it wasn't safe. I can't imagine that even if drivers had refused to take the loads, the company wouldn't have just called around to different companies until they found one who would.
The complexity of these cases shouldn't cause victims or their families to lose hope. When victims have someone on their side who knows how to navigate these types of situations, they can still get justice for their loved ones and hold wrong-doers accountable.