In an accident involving a commercial truck or 18-wheeler, the truck driver and the company he or she works for will always have the upper hand at the outset of the case. Sure, there are things their victims can do to level the playing field, but they always start at a disadvantage.
There are two reasons for this:
- Trucking companies have virtually unlimited funds to hire aggressive defense lawyers, who will stop at nothing to make it appear as if the trucking company is innocent, or at least less guilty.
- Timing. Their lawyers are among the first to know all the details and get access to the evidence. In case the significance of this fact is not immediately obvious, this is a huge problem. Just imagine how difficult it would be for a district attorney to prosecute a murderer if the murderer's lawyer was one of the first people to arrive on the scene. But that's exactly what trucking company lawyers do in the majority of serious accidents.
In this article we're going to talk about how trucking companies exploit this fact to their advantage.
Here's what we mean:
It may sound like I'm exaggerating the situation, but the truth is, I see this happen in cases all the time. For instance, someone is involved in a horrible accident, and moments after the police arrive on the scene, so does a lawyer for the trucking company, and he's all too willing to supply the version of events that's most favorable to his client. You'd be surprised how susceptible to outside persuasion investigating officers can be.
To illustrate this point, imagine the following hypothetical:
At 8 am on a Thursday morning, Jim, our imaginary truck driver, is on his way home from an overnight shift, only he's not paying attention to the road. He's playing a video on his phone, trying to keep himself entertained during the last hour of his trip. Jim looks up and sees a stalled minivan in the road with its hazard lights on. He brakes as hard as he can, but it's too late, and he crashes into the minivan, instantly killing two people inside.
There are only two witnesses, the two people in the car behind him, who call 911. Before the police arrive on scene, Jim calls his dispatcher who then informs him not to say anything yet and tells him they are sending their lawyer out to the scene. Shortly after the police arrive, so does the lawyer. Jim tells the lawyer exactly what happened, knowing full well that he's in the wrong. The lawyer knows that he can't ask Jim to just flat-out lie, but he instructs Jim as to how he should phrase his explanation when talking to the cops, so that an extreme act of negligence seems like just a common mistake. He tells Jim to say that he took his eyes off the road for a second and put on his brakes when he saw the van, but just couldn't stop in time. Now, all of that is technically true, but it leaves out some obviously important details (i.e. the part about playing on his phone). The lawyer tells him that if the cops ask for more details about whether or not he used his phone or was speeding that he should just say he can't remember and that his head hurts from the accident.
The lawyer then uses the equipment purchased by the trucking company to download the information from the truck's ECM (Engine Control Module) which tells him that Jim was speeding at the time of the accident. The cops don't have this info because they don't have access to ECM-reading equipment. They only have the testimony of the witnesses to go by, and of course, the lawyer has a hand in the witnesses' testimony as well. While the cops are filling out paperwork, the lawyer goes to speak to the witnesses. He asks them whether they saw Jim trying to brake, and they of course say, that yes, they did see Jim putting on his brakes. The lawyer keeps reiterating back to the witnesses the fact that they saw Jim brake. Since they were behind Jim's trailer, they didn't have a good view of the actual collision, but they did see brake lights. Anyone who's ever watched law and order can see how easily a lawyer could use that information to defend the truck driver. I can imagine it now: "So, Mr. Witness, according to your own statement that you gave the police, you couldn't see the actual collision, but you did see brake lights. Clearly, you can't honestly tell the court that the accident was my client's fault. In fact, the only thing you actually witnessed, was my client trying to avoid the collision."
When the lawyer returns, Jim tells him that he's nervous because he may have drugs in his system. The lawyer instructs Jim not to mention this, and in order to get Jim out of trouble, the lawyer tells the police that Jim's head is hurting, and that he probably needs to go home and lie down. The cops feel bad for Jim and tell him that he can leave the scene before testing him for alcohol or drugs. Again, that may sound far fetched, but it happens often. After Jim leaves, the lawyer sticks around to fill answer any of the officers' remaining questions. The lawyer also takes photos of the accident in a way that is most favorable to Jim. For example, he might take a photo of Jim's skid marks, shot from an angle that makes them look longer, as if he tried to stop sooner from the point of impact. The scene is wrapped up, and the lawyer is the only one who knows the whole truth about what happened.
As I said before, this example may seem like a stereotype or a stretch, but this is actually very normal, and I've seen cases play out this way too many times. You may be thinking that regardless of whether Jim was on drugs or speeding, that he's still obviously guilty of hitting the van, and that Jim's lawyer can't take away the fact that Jim was guilty. This is true. However, the small details that hide the real truth of Jim's extreme negligence would, in fact, greatly affect the amount of compensation the victims' families would receive. Think about it this way. If someone stole a loaf of bread because their motivation was to feed their kids, the punishment will probably not be very severe. However, if someone stole a cash register full of money in order to feed their drug habit, the punishment is going to be much more harsh. The same thing applies to truck accident cases. Trucking companies and truck drivers can avoid the lion share of punishment that's coming their way by sugar-coating the details of the accident, since juries are reluctant to make a "good guy who made a minor mistake" pay for the full measure of his mistakes. All that to say, sugarcoating any part of the car may seem minor, but it isn't. It can have a huge impact on the outcome of the case.
What should victims' families do in this circumstance?
As you can see, accident victims are already at an extreme disadvantage, for the simple fact that the trucking company beats them to the punch in terms of investigating the accident.
To counter this and tip the scales in their favor, the first thing a victim's family should do is take immediate action. Since, as I've demonstrated, the trucking company already has a head start on the case, it's important to try to catch up as soon as possible. The lawyer representing the victim should disregard the police report, and basically start from scratch. He or she should investigate by getting a subpoena for the truck's ECM data, and by speaking with the witnesses again. It's important to have an expert on the side of the victim in these matters. Even though the jury may still find the truck driver at fault, the difference in compensation with the full truth will be huge.