Everyone understands that simply by driving onto the interstate we all run the risk of sharing the road with a truck driver who may fall asleep at the wheel, forget to check their mirrors before changing lanes, or otherwise fail to live up to the legal obligations he or she assumes when they become licensed to drive a commercial vehicle.
Surely, we can all agree that such conduct is bad and it typically warrants punishment. But what has always struck me as being a far greater sin is when 18-wheeler accidents are caused not by simple human error but by mechanical failures. Especially, when the 18-wheelers in question are in such a sad state of disrepair that they never should have been on the road in the first place.
Unbeknownst to most people, a significant number of trucks on our nation's highways and city streets are operated in just such a fashion, leaving some experts to estimate that many dozens of people are hurt or killed each year in accidents caused by mechanical failures. In this article, I'll address this problem and explain what the law has to say about trucking companies who operate poorly maintained equipment.
How widespread is this problem?
The problem is more widespread than most people imagine. If I were to tell you that 5% of all big trucks on the road failed to meet basic safety requirements, you'd probably be alarmed. If I told you that 10% of all trucks on the road failed to meet these requirements, I imagine you'd be shocked. But what if I told you that as many as 25% of the trucks on our nation's highways can't even meet the minimum required safety standards? Sadly, that's true.
In a recent sting operation known as Texas Roadcheck, the Texas Department of Public Safety randomly stopped and inspected approximately 8,000 large trucks and busses. These officers found faulty brake systems, tires with no tread, unsecured cargo, faulty turn signals and lights, etc. Consequently, 26.5% of the vehicles inspected were taken out of service immediately, and many more were issued citations and warnings. You can read more about these efforts here and here, but, suffice it to say, this is a major problem. But the problem isn't horrifically bad only in terms of how widespread it is. No, the worst part about this issue is that it flies under the public's radar. Few people outside of the legal, transportation, or law enforcement sectors have any awareness as to just how willing many trucking companies and their drivers are to put us all at risk. Make no mistake about it, that's exactly what's going on here. These trucking companies know that they are required to maintain their vehicles and they understand the consequences if they do not, but it appears that they're willing to roll the dice anyway.
How does this happen?
Naturally, this information should have people asking the question, "How in the world can there be so many dangerous trucks on the road?" The answer to this question is, in my opinion, very simple. Greed. Industry experts suggest that the transportation industry has a deficit of several tens of thousands of truck drivers; there simply aren't enough drivers to move all the stuff that needs moving. As such, many truck drivers get overworked (which is a whole other problem), and so do their vehicles. From the perspective of the transportation companies, every hour spent in the repair shop is one less hour that a truck can be earning money for them. And since transportation is currently a sellers' market, many trucking companies aren't willing to sit out a single inning while there's money to be made. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of these bleeding heart lawyers who is cynical about big industry or considers himself some sort of vigilante hero who needs to take corporate America down a peg. On the contrary, I want to see America's trucking industry do well. There's nothing wrong with an honest business aspiring to make a profit. But I just so happen to have a huge problem with companies choosing to put us all at risk to make that profit.
Folks, there are plenty of trucking companies who make money hand over fist and they maintain their vehicles. That's all I want these companies to do. And when they don't, lawyers like me exist to hold them accountable to their victims.
Why this big problem is actually a HUGE problem
What makes this problem even worse is how hard it is to prove that a truck accident is caused by the truck not functioning properly. It takes physical evidence to show that an 18-wheeler or large truck suffered a mechanical failure, and that evidence is NOT usually something the police who investigate the accident are equipped to look for.
Imagine the following scenario: An accident occurs because of, say, a tire blowout on a truck, and the 18-wheeler veers into oncoming traffic, killing someone and injuring the driver of the truck. So the police draft their report based on witness statements alone, wherein they describe seeing the driver veer into oncoming traffic, yet they don't know anything about the tire. Suddenly, you've got an official-sounding document that basically puts all of the blame on the driver of the truck, when the accident was actually caused by something else altogether. Trucking companies are more than willing to let this misinformation linger.
No company ever wants to admit fault for any accident their truckers cause, so you can always expect a trucking company to put up a fight when they hurt someone, no matter the circumstances. But when there's an accident where the true cause is not incredibly obvious, you can bet that they will never raise their hand and say, "Excuse me. You didn't notice that the truck involved in this accident had a tire blowout. Please sue us now." So, what I see time and time again are accidents that are caused by trucks that suffer a preventable mechanical failure, yet the trucking company that the driver works for is more than happy to let the driver take the fall for the accident. This is allowed to happen because, frankly, the police who investigate large truck accidents don't dig deep enough to identify mechanical failures, so the report just gets written to suggest that the accident was driver error on the part of the trucker.
That's still bad for the trucking company (since the law holds them accountable for their employees' mistakes), but juries, being made of regular people who operate based more on feelings more than on an unflinching duty to enforce the law as it is written, will invariably punish a trucking company less harshly when they think that their employee was the sole cause of an accident. There is a big difference in the mind of a jury between punishing a parent company for the conduct of an employee and punishing the same company for their own failure to maintain their equipment. In short, trucking companies involved in litigation have a vested interest in not letting juries know that a mechanical failure caused an accident. If juries find out about that, suddenly they're likely to be far more willing to punish the trucking company harshly.
Consequently -- and I don't want to be perceived as critical of law enforcement here, as they do a great job in other contexts -- accident victims can't simply rely on police reports to tell them who is responsible for such a major accident. Investigating large commercial vehicle accidents simply requires more resources than the thin budgets of most states allow police investigators to operate with. Yet, every time that there is a major truck accident, the trucking companies send their investigators (who have way more resources at their disposal than the police have) to inspect the vehicles involved and the accident scene, and, trust me when I tell you this, they know when a defective vehicle of theirs is truly to blame. They're just all too willing to keep that information to themselves.
Usually the only way for accident victims to concretely determine whether a mechanical failure was the true cause of an accident is to have a private investigator or an attorney who knows what he's doing look into the matter. Sadly, though, most accident victims aren't aware that this is a problem that they should even be worried about, so it's rarely, if ever, looked into. I can't help but wonder how many trucking companies have benefited from lax investigations that never revealed the true cause of an accident that was, in actual fact, caused by an entirely preventable mechanical failure.