How “Silver Alert” Bias Could Affect 18-Wheeler Accident Cases

Michael GrossmanMarch 31, 2017 3 minutes

Medicine and technology continue to improve, drastically improving the average citizen's lifespan. That can be something of a mixed blessing, however. On one hand, seeing the world change and one's family grow are likely a positive experience for many. On the other, extending a person's years increases their risk of a variety of disorders, including mental degeneration that limits memory and cognition. Many forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's Disease, can cause mood swings, language disorders, behavioral changes, and disorientation during their progression. The signs of these afflictions aren't always obvious, and every year seniors in motor vehicles become confused and are unable to find their way home.

This phenomenon is so pervasive that thirty-six states have instituted the Silver Alert system--a broadcast method to help locate wayward seniors. Started in Colorado in 2006 and modeled on Amber Alerts, its goal is to actively disseminate information about lost seniors in order to help civilians and authorities recognize them. We've all seen highway safety signs broadcast these alerts, and television stations often display images like this during the day:


For all their benefits, though, Silver Alerts can complicate matters somewhat when their subject is in an auto accident. One such example recently happened in New Jersey.

Saddle Brook, NJ: March 22, 2017

According to New Jersey state police, 63-year-old Laura Russo was reported missing on Friday, March 17--St. Patrick's Day. A Silver Alert was issued over the weekend after Russo's disappearance.

Russo, a resident of Plainfield, CT, was not seen again until her vehicle was found in the left lane of Interstate 80 West, where it had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer at approximately 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. She was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash.

Police reports were not more specific about the collision's location; this is a map of the city of Saddle Brook, including Interstate 80. Silver Alerts were canceled after Laura Russo was found at the scene. While they are often activated when the missing person is confirmed to suffer from dementia, no indication was made that Russo was afflicted by the condition. Her whereabouts in the days between her disappearance and her discovery remain unknown.

How Insurance Companies Can Use Silver Alerts Against Victims

While they are clearly rooted in good intentions, Silver Alerts by their nature create impressions of an elderly driver who may not have full control of his or her faculties. While that is often accurate in these cases, it also lends credibility to a defensive argument that the subject of the alert could have done something unpredictable behind the wheel. If, like Laura Russo, that senior is involved in an accident with an 18-wheeler, defense attorneys might suggest that the victim was driving erratically, in a way that could not have been predicted by the trucker--a variant of "she jumped right out in front of me," but with the added weight of a Silver Alert's implication. Certainly this seems like callous straw-grasping, but the Silver Alert--a public declaration that, however benevolently, suggests the victim didn't have the agency to make sound decisions--gives defendants more straws at which to grasp.

This ties in with a general bias against the elderly on the road, particularly in relation to truck accidents. While their attorneys are never so crass as to outright say it, trucking companies are not above suggesting that the damages they should owe to the family of a deceased elderly person should be reduced to reflect the victim's likely number of remaining years. This is particularly unfair to people in their early 60s; while this age may have struck prior generations as significantly advanced, the average life expectancy for a woman in the U.S. is almost 80 years today. Attempting to dismiss a full quarter of a victim's lifespan is not a trivial matter.

Most of the time when someone dies after getting rear-ended by a tractor-trailer, the company that employs its driver can offer few compelling justifications. To defend their driver and by extension themselves, they have to argue that the victim did something reckless, like cut the truck off in fast-moving traffic. Without such unforeseeable issues, the truck's professional driver should have known enough to maintain a safe following distance, which would have allowed plenty of time to stop. However, defense may have an "out" by introducing doubt about a senior's capacity to drive safely, thanks to a Silver Alert.

When you combine society's opinion of elderly drivers with the Silver Alert's implications, senior citizens and their surviving families have the potential to be taken advantage of in the courts. This doesn't mean that seniors, or their family members cannot get justice against a trucking company whose negligence led to the death of a loved. However, commercial trucking defense attorneys have made a dark art out of defending the seemingly indefensible. The first step for victims to obtain justice is to know what they're up against.