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 trucking companies always have a head start building a defense.
There are two main reasons for this:
- Trucking companies have the 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.
- Trucking companies and their insurers know that every commercial truck accident has the potential to result in a lawsuit. As a result, they often dispatch lawyers and investigators to the crash scene in an effort to build their defense.
I'm sure that to some, an attorney who sues trucking companies for a living discussing how those companies exploit their advantages to undermine legitimate claims sounds a little self-serving. After all, isn't in my interest to paint a bleak picture of a victim's situation so they hire an attorney like me to litigate their case?
What I propose is to lay all my cards on the table. I'll discuss what I've seen happen in my 30 years of 18-wheeler injury and wrongful death litigation, how it impacts a victim's case, and then leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not the issues I raise are something that should concern them.
Trucking Companies Begin Their Legal Defense at the Crash Scene
The scene of an 18-wheeler crash is often chaotic. There is almost always debris everywhere. Good Samaritans try to do what they can to assist the injured. Traffic backs up, because no one can safely get through. Paramedics, firefighters, and police all show up on the scene.
Into this bedlam, lawyers and investigators for the trucking company often slip in and you wouldn't even notice them, if you didn't know to look for them. Why are they heading to the wreck site, hot on the heels of the ambulances?
The following hypothetical crash illustrates the crash scene behavior I've come across litigating commercial truck accident cases:
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 company 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 brings trucking company equipment 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.
This example may sound like I'm stretching the truth, but the behavior I describe is quite common. In helping truck accident victims, I've seen such a scenario play out too many times to count. You may be thinking that regardless of whether Jim was on drugs or speeding, that he's still obviously hit the van, and that Jim's lawyer can't take away the fact that Jim caused the crash. 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 harsher. The same thing applies to truck accident cases. Trucking companies and truck drivers can avoid the lion's 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 mistake. 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.
With the Right Help, Truck Accident Victims Can Overcome Trucking Company Advantages
Just because trucking companies have the resources to make their case and a head start gathering evidence doesn't mean that victims can't prevail against them in court. Any reputable commercial truck accident attorney is going to have the resources to balance that side of the equation. In addition, truck accident injury attorneys, like those at my firm, have to experience to spot defense attorney shenanigans a mile away, and know how to prove the truth of a victim's case.
The most important step that victims can take to overcome the initial advantages that trucking companies possess is to obtain the help you need as quickly as possible. Since 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, re-interviewing the witnesses, and obtaining the truck driver's cell phone data. With evidence in hand, it's also important to have an experts on the side of the victim in these matters to clearly articulate to potential jurors what the evidence says.
Even in cases where truck drivers obviously screwed up, it's still possible for trucking company defense attorneys to avoid full responsibility for their driver's mistake. Trucking companies take full advantage of the head-start they have in truck accident cases. Fortunately for victims, having the right attorney on their side can level the playing field and hold the trucking company fully accountable for their careless behavior.