Commercial Truck Drivers: Here’s How Not to Get Sued

Michael GrossmanFebruary 06, 2017 6 minutes

Among the most easily prevented type of accident where a truck driver is usually at fault are those where passenger vehicles collide with poorly marked trailers. While some may argue that these types of accidents are uncommon, we've seen accidents that involve this fact pattern, not once, not twice, not three, but four times in the past month alone.

In almost every one of the incidents we've highlighted, negligent action on the part of a truck driver appears most likely to blame for the fatality of another motorist. I understand that many commercial truck drivers will feel like a truck accident law firm like ours is "out to get them." But in the interest of showing good faith, as well as preventing needless deaths on the highway, I plan to tell every commercial driver how to not get sued after these types of accidents.

If you're thinking that this sounds like a trick, I freely admit that in a way it is. While some people believe that we want these types of accidents to occur so that our firm can become involved and make money off of them, the fact is that collisions with commercial vehicles produce so many fatalities and such horrific injuries that only a monster wouldn't do what they could to see that they don't occur. That's the tricky part of the proposal, because not only will truck drivers who follow these steps shield themselves from liability, but they'll also prevent a great many collisions to begin with. Everybody wins.

How Truck Drivers Can Avoid Being Sued

As someone who keenly follows the trucking industry, I'm fully aware that if I buy something off of a store shelf, be it food, clothing, or an electronic doodad, that it probably arrived at that store via a truck. Our whole way of life is based around truck drivers bringing vital goods from where they are made to where we can purchase them. Without truckers, modern life just isn't possible.

Complicating this convenience is the reality that a good portion of the world isn't really designed to be safely traversed by a 40-ton vehicle. This often means that these large vehicles have to maneuver in areas where it takes a real professional to safely operate. Places like Highway 52 in Kingstree, South Carolina.

It was on that stretch of highway when an unidentified man was killed when his car collided with the trailer of a log truck that was backing out of a private driveway. Just looking at the images of the stretch of highway, it seems fairly straight, with an unobstructed view. This might lead some to believe that the road was designed with 18-wheelers in mind. However, there isn't a divided rural road in the country that was designed to accommodate an 18-wheeler in reverse. In fact, such roads are death traps when 18-wheeler drivers attempt to execute those types of maneuvers, because of the amount of time the trailer blocks the highway, coupled with the high rate of speed for other vehicles.

I'm sure that the truck driver in Kingstree didn't have a choice but to back out of the driveway, but there are safe ways to do that and unsafe ways. Safe driving not only saves lives, but also shields drivers from lawsuits.

What most people don't understand about personal injury law is that people can get away with a lot of dangerous behavior if two conditions are met. The first condition is that the behavior is unavoidable, like say picking up some logs in a narrow private driveway. The second and more important factor is whether or not the person doing the dangerous thing provides adequate warning to people that may be put in harm's way.

I know that most truck drivers generally decide to execute dangerous maneuvers because they really don't have any other choice. Just like I'm not going to attempt to parallel park my car, or do a three-point turn unless I have to, the vast majority of truckers would rather avoid having to make complicated maneuvers in their trucks.

At the same time, there are truck drivers who will attempt a dangerous turn instead of driving a couple miles out of their way. This violates the first condition for avoiding liability. Look at it this way; every aspect of a lawsuit is viewed through the eyes of a potential juror. Leaving trucks out of the equation for a moment, if you hear that someone did something dangerous to save a few minutes and someone got hurt, you're natural reaction will be to ask, "Why didn't they just take the time to behave in a safer manner?"

Think of the lack of sympathy that most people have for parents who leave their kids in the car during the summer. Sure, we've all been in a hurry, but at the same time, we all know that children's safety is more important than saving a couple of minutes. Heck, a large part of parenting is being inconvenienced for the benefit of your child. So if there's a safer way to do things, take the extra time and do them the right way.

This type of thinking is something that jurors do. Juries tend to reward the cautious and punish the reckless. A driver who thoughtfully avoids dangerous situations bolsters their credibility in the eyes of a jury.

Sometimes, drivers don't have a choice but to attempt to turn where they are. Like I mentioned before, there are large parts of the country where the roads weren't designed with 18-wheelers in mind. It's still possible for a driver to be pretty much lawsuit-proof, even in these circumstances. The key is to alert passengers that the driver is about to attempt a dangerous maneuver.

The best way to warn other motorists is with signs or road flares, like you would see for road construction. If it turns out that before backing out of the driveway in Kingstree, the truck driver placed signs or road flares hundreds of yards in either direction, then the driver has a really solid defense that oncoming motorists were warned of his dangerous maneuver.

If the truck and trailer were equipped with lights and other safety features that increased visibility out to 500 yards, thereby complying with federal regulations, then one would be hard pressed to argue that motorists weren't warned.

In many situations, the safest solution is to have someone ride along with the truck driver to serve as a flagger and lookout. This person can serve the dual both alerting other motorists of the presence of an 18-wheeler, while at the same time relaying information to the driver.

If you notice a recurring theme in this advice, it's that with appropriate warning, it's next to impossible to convince a jury that a truck driver acted negligently. Imagine this scenario. A truck that was well-marked and visible from 500 yards away, backed out into a road. There were signs even further down the road alerting motorists that they were approaching a hazard. A car comes along and continues driving as if there was no hazard in the roadway and crashes into the 18-wheeler.

In such a scenario, I find it difficult to imagine a hypothetical jury that would not put the blame for the accident on the driver of a non-commercial vehicle. After all, short of barring trucks from large sections of the country, which is impossible, there isn't much more that a driver can do besides give adequate warning to other drivers that danger is ahead.

If a driver did all of these things, that driver and the company they worked for would be nearly bulletproof when it comes to lawsuits. Of course, the problem is that in many of these types of accidents, truck drivers don't adequately warn oncoming motorists.

Making Oneself Lawsuit-Proof Saves Money

What do all of these warning devices and procedures have in common? Why aren't they standard practice for every trucking company across the country? The answer is that they cost money. Whether it's proper reflective equipment, signs, or even an extra person in the truck to flag, none of those things are free. Given the very competitive nature of the commercial trucking industry, this means that when some companies are struggling to survive, having proper safety equipment is the first area that gets cut.

The calculus for these companies is pretty simple. They reason that "Times are tight, so we're only spending money on gas and salaries." Unfortunately, this type of planning doesn't account for the tremendous costs of lawsuits. Like most other disastrous events in life, there's a tendency to think that "it can never happen to me." Companies who adopt this attitude aren't just gambling with their own lives and fortunes, but with the lives of other motorists who share the roads.

The simple fact of the matter is that many trucking company who get sued after accidents where someone collides with a trailer could have done something to prevent the accident. In the ultimate act of hypocrisy, many will decry the cost of the lawsuit, while ignoring just how little it would have cost to prevent one in the first place. This is to say nothing of the loss of life or injuries that usually accompany these types of accidents.

Contrary to popular belief, lawyers can't just file a lawsuit against anyone they please. Someone has to have acted negligently for a lawsuit to be viable. The really tragic part of these accidents is that a truck accident law firm can tell truck drivers what they need to do to shield themselves from lawsuits, but there will still be those who ignore that advice.