I See Debris: Unsecured Belongings are Killing Motorists

By Michael GrossmanSeptember 02, 2016Reading Time: 6 minutes

Most motorists have cruised past some kind of abandoned flotsam on the shoulder of the highway. In my own travels I've seen old mattresses, lost tires, suitcases with spilled clothes, and most unusually, a destroyed photocopier. It's kind of sad to see what people left behind, whether they knew it or not at the time, but sad or not, this is a very dangerous phenomenon. I've had a few close calls with things spilling off of cars, and my heart goes out to anyone who has been hurt or lost someone to these situations.

In the news the other day, a young woman was involved in just such a crash when she swerved in traffic to avoid another vehicle's unhitched trailer. It got me thinking: What does the law specifically say about loose debris on the road?

Poorly-secured items fall off vehicles all the time.

It's a serious issue, and it doesn't take much to trigger it. Old or bad bungee cords snap or work loose, a La-Z-Boy is tied to a hatchback's roof with flimsy twine, or a pothole in the road dislodges a canoe from the top of an SUV. It's crazy, and it's scary, and we live it every day.

Regardless of where you live, there's no shortage of airborne hazards on the road. It's such a phenomenon that statisticians published the results of a three-year study about debris-related crashes on the nation's highways.

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety,

"[Debris-related crashes are] crashes in which a vehicle struck or was struck by an object that fell or became detached from another vehicle, struck a non-fixed object on the roadway, or crashed after swerving to avoid an object on the roadway."

The study found that collisions based on those parameters have increased by 40 percent in the last 15 years. Those are wrecks caused either by crashing into unsecured personal belongings (TV's, mattresses, furniture, unhitched trailers), or by swerving out of their way and into something else.

Crashes caused by other things in the road--animals, construction/work-zone materials, or falling trees--were not factored into the statistics. The incidents germane to the study were ones involving things that fell out of (or off of) vehicles.

AAA linked over 200,000 crashes to debris between 2011 and 2014. In those wrecks over 39,000 people were injured, with over 500 reported casualties. 37 percent of those deaths were drivers who swerved to avoid flying detritus. The three biggest types of dangerous jetsam were found to be a) parts falling off a vehicle (like wheels or bumpers), b) cargo detaching itself from a vehicle, and c) hitched trailers coming loose in traffic.

Unsecured debris
Example of poorly-secured cargo, a serious road hazard.

The study also revealed that one-third of these debris wrecks happen during work hours--more specifically between 10 a.m. and 3:59 p.m., when traffic is heavy and most hauling occurs.

It is our duty to avoid hurting others the best we can.

In practical terms, these catastrophes are highly preventable if appropriate care is taken. Test bungee cords and make sure they're hooked in place. Use ratcheting straps to hold items down firmly. Make sure trailers are properly attached to the tow-hitch. Know the limitations of a vehicle and act accordingly. If it doesn't seem like a move will be logistically possible using one's commuter vehicle or a buddy's pickup, hire professionals or rent a moving truck.

Take the steps that need to be taken to keep others safe. I don't mean to be harsh, but this is the life and well-being of other motorists at stake. That's worth doing something right, because when these considerations are ignored and people get hurt, it could be the makings of a lawsuit.

How can an attorney help with a debris-related injury?

On the road, loose possessions are hazardous to nearby drivers. If someone fails to strap down his dining chairs and an accident happens, said person could be held legally accountable on the basis of negligence.

In Texas personal injury law, negligence is usually determined case-by-case in legal proceedings. However, in some personal injury claims, the negligence of the defendant may be established as a matter of law, if it is shown that the defendant violated a recorded Texas law or regulation. This is called negligence per se, which is Latin for "in itself."

In 1987, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in El Chico Corp. v. Poole that negligence per se is

"An unexcused violation of a statute [which] was designed to prevent injury to the class of persons to which the injured plaintiff belongs."

This ruling was related to a different kind of case we often handle called dram shop law, a set of statutes relating to a bar's liability for over-serving patrons. However, when such rulings are codified, they often are used for legal precedent, meaning that elements of the decision might be applied to other types of cases in the future.

The Texas Supreme Court decided that if a written statute creates a standard for determining liability, an unexcused violation of that statute can be interpreted as negligence per se. Some examples of this as it applies to traffic incidents include accidents caused by an unqualified/unlicensed driver, failure to stop at a red light or stop sign, and driving on the wrong side of the road.

The Texas Transportation Code is in essence a body of established statutes governing proper driving behaviors. Chapter 725 of the Code specifically deals with "transportation of loose materials." Per the wording used in that statute, the situations we're describing seem to constitute negligence per se.

Instances of this kind of negligence require the proving of 4 distinct case elements:

  1. The defendant violated a statute.
    The Transportation Code is clear about the need for appropriate restraint of loose materials. Section 725.021 of the Code defines how a load must be secured in order to comply with statute:

     

    "...The load shall be covered and the covering firmly secured at the front and back, unless the load:
    (1) is completely enclosed by the load-carrying compartment; or
    (2) does not blow from or spill over the top of the load-carrying compartment."

    The very act of losing a poorly-restrained personal belonging to speed, wind, or gravity would in itself constitute a violation of this statute, since clearly if it was "firmly secured" it would not go airborne.

  2. The statute in question is a safety statute.
    The Texas Transportation Code is specifically designed to regulate and promote commerce and safety on the roads and highways of the Lone Star State. The laws outlined on its (many) pages include numerous statutes related to the safety of Texan roads and drivers.

     

  3. The defendant's acts caused the type of harm that the statute was intended to prevent.
    Un- or improperly-restrained items that bounce along highway lanes and constitute imminent danger to oncoming cars can most definitely cause physical injuries, which are the ones identified and elaborated upon in Chapter 725.
    The same chapter outlines punishments for failure to obey the statute. TTC § 725.003 defines the transgression as a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine between $25 and $500.
    That punishment only includes the payment rendered to the state for being found guilty. It does not take into account the further considerations necessary in the event of injury.

     

  • The plaintiff was a member of the class that the statute protected.
    Texas drivers are by definition the class of people protected by the statutes of the TTC. Violations of these rules can have serious consequences--not just a misdemeanor charge and a fine, but major physical damages to victims of debris crashes. As we saw before in the study, a typical year saw roughly 63,000 of these wrecks, with 13,000 of those being injurious and 163 of them fatal.
  • With all the elements of a negligence per se claim fairly plain to see, there could be merit to pursuing damages against a driver whose loose cargo caused a crash. Individual motorists are not always highly insured, but every bit can help in an attempt to once again become whole after a wreck. In addition, it's not always about the money so much as it is the message conveyed. If other drivers see the negligent motorist punished by the legal system, perhaps they will think twice before taking such risky actions themselves.

    Exercise common sense or answer for it.

    Individual, non-commercial drivers are not currently required by any federal laws to take special precautions when securing items to their vehicles. However, Texas and 14 states have written laws to impose fines or other penalties for improperly secured loads. However, Texas' $500 maximum fine is in relative terms a slap on the wrist, given the possible severity of injuries stemming from a debris crash. To obtain justice for a victim of such a wreck, civil procedure is usually necessary.

    Whether their home states intervene or not, injured parties do have legal recourse against those whose unsecured possessions injured them. If you or someone you know is injured by debris, a skilled attorney can help you seek justice through litigation. If someone fails to do so and the end result is the injury of other motorists, they may need to learn their lesson a different way.