One of the most dangerous categories of truck accidents is when the trailer becomes detached from the truck. When this happens, it instantly places the equivalent of a multi-ton boulder in the path of every other vehicle on the road. Even drivers in the largest trucks on our highways have little chance of escaping serious injury, if they crash at speed into a detached trailer.
One such accident occurred a few weeks ago in Billings, Oklahoma around 3:30 in the morning, January 16th. Local media reports that a trailer detached from a semi-truck driven by Randy Bailey, 38, at the intersection of County Road 30 and U.S. Highway 412. A truck driven by 48-year-old Joel Goodman then struck the orphaned trailer, and Mr. Goodman succumbed to injuries sustained in that collision.
We hear from professional truck drivers that, in this kind of accident, the driver had to make a mistake for a trailer to become detached from a truck. In almost every similar case, that's probably true, but I think that the general public probably doesn't have an idea why that is the case, or in what rare circumstances the driver wouldn't be at fault. Here's how it works.
An Quick Look at How Semi-Trucks Attach (and Detach) from Trailers
In my experience, the average person doesn't have a great idea of how trucks physically connect with trailers. Heck, I have a couple of friends who have no mechanical aptitude that think that the cables you see between trucks and their trailers are how they connect.
The main point of physical contact between a commercial truck and its trailer, the one that do all the work, is where the fifth wheel on the truck meets the trailer's kingpin. For those who aren't familiar with those terms, the fifth wheel is the flat, slotted, horseshoe-looking part that's directly behind a truck's cab, between the wheels. The kingpin is a small piece of steel, which juts out below a trailer. It's attached to apron of the trailer, a plate of steel in the front of the trailer.
When everything goes right, the kingpin slides up the top of the fifth-wheel and locks into place. On a properly coupled truck and trailer, the fifth wheel does the work of guiding the trailer and allowing it to pivot when changing direction. Without the point of contact, there's no way to control the trailer. The truck also supplies the air necessary to operate the brakes on the trailer. When they detach, the brakes on the trailer instantly lock, to keep the trailer from rolling further down, or off, the road. While this prevents the trailer from traveling down the highway and injuring people, it ensures that a detached trailer becomes a temporary brick wall on any road.
The main way that a trailer can unexpectedly detach from the truck is when there is a malfunction in the fifth-wheel locking mechanism. One common way that this can happen is that wear and tear on the fifth wheel degrades the lock over time, so it can't do its job, or a driver fails to properly connect the fifth wheel and the kingpin. The most likely cause of degradation in the fifth wheel is repeated, improper coupling and uncoupling with trailers. Improper coupling places more force and weight on the fifth wheel, which eventually leaves to failure in its locking mechanism.
Of course, the most likely culprit for a trailer coming free is a failure to ensure a proper connection between the fifth wheel and the kingpin. Improper connections occur for a variety of reasons. Some are as simple as not remembering to replace the lock release handle in the locked position, whereas others are due to improper coupling procedures. Some folks may ask, "If the fifth wheel isn't locked, why doesn't the trailer just slide off the truck?" In the event of an improper coupling, it's possible that enough of a connection exists for the trailer to be pulled in one direction, but when forces increase, such as around sharp turns, the trailer can break loose from the truck.
For either of these common scenarios to occur, a driver has to make some kind of mistake in their pre-trip trailer examination. Any of the mistakes described above should be visible when a driver performs their mandatory safety inspection of the trailer before hitting the road.
What Else Can Cause a Detached Trailer, Besides Driver Error?
As a truck accident injury firm, we often find ourselves on the receiving end of truck driver vitriol whenever we point out the ways that a truck driver may have caused an accident. From looking around at various message boards and trucking websites, I can't come across a single instance where drivers don't seem to point the finger at a fellow truck driver whenever a detached trailer causes an accident.
It's a strange day to find myself being less inclined to blame a truck driver than big-rig operators, but even if 99% of the time, this type of accident is the driver's fault, justice demands that we not punish the 1% who are blameless. It's always important to remember that the law doesn't seek to dispense justice base on actuarial tables, but attempts to discern what happened, based upon the facts of each individual incident.
If a driver isn't to blame for a detached trailer, then who is? While it's not particularly common, there are instances where the fifth wheel suffers from a manufacturing defect. As recently as 2014, almost 7,000 Fontaine fifth wheels were subject to a recall. In fairness, that particular recall blamed improper coupling and uncoupling for the unusually high rate of failure in these fifth wheels. But since improper coupling occurs all of the time, damaging any properly built fifth wheel, the unusually high rate of incidents with that particular fifth wheel suggest there was more to the story than the recall notice let on.
While I imagine that most drivers would counter that an experienced driver should notice a defective fifth wheel during their pre-trip inspection, the nature of many manufacturing defects is such that defective parts aren't readily apparent. In rare instances, it's possible that everything about the fifth wheel appears normal to the driver, but a design flaw or material defect means that the fifth wheel doesn't do what it's supposed to do.
Let me be clear, I do not mean to suggest that a manufacturing defect is the likeliest cause of any detached trailer accident, but in the interest of fairness, it's a possibility that should always be examined, just to make sure that an innocent driver isn't punished.
A Special Consideration for the Fatal Billings, OK Collision
Returning to the Billings, OK crash for just a moment, there's one detail of this accident that doesn't necessarily clear up what happened, but warrants further investigation. When looking at the details of what happened, it jumped out at me that at the time of the accident, the temperature was only 6 degrees. By itself, this detail doesn't affirm whether driver error or a mechanical defect caused this crash. In fact, one can argue that it increases the likelihood of either scenario.
Some may wonder, how does cold weather increase the likelihood of driver error? Since the most likely error that could cause this kind of crash occurred during the pre-trip inspection, bitterly cold weather, such as a wind chill of -8.5 degrees, seems like a fairly straight-forward reason that someone might not be as thorough as they should be. I imagine that for most people working in the frigid cold, the natural desire to get somewhere warmer could lead to things missed and mistakes made.
Extremely cold conditions can also impact equipment. Perhaps the most famous instance of this was the shuttle Challenger disaster in the mid-80s, when low temperatures caused a gasket to become brittle and fail. Under extreme cold temperatures, metal can become more brittle, and lubricants become more sludge-like and less slippery.
With that being said, most manufacturers test their products in temperatures more extreme than those that existed in Billings, OK on the day of the crash. Properly tested metals and lubricants should be unaffected by even the low temperatures that were present at the time of the collision. Of course, the caveat there is that with many defective products, defects weren't noticed because proper testing was not conducted. So if there's a scenario where a defective product is more likely to fail, it often involves temperature extremes.
We see this phenomenon in defective Takata airbags. The airbags degrade over time in the presence of above average temperatures and/or humidity. So while it's quite likely that consumers in relatively cool and dry regions of the country will never have an issue with the known defects in Takata airbags, for people in Texas, Florida, or other warmer states, they're ticking time bombs.
In the end, the extremely low temperature at the time of the collision may merely be a coincidence, but it's important not to discount any detail, until all the facts are in.
Accounting for Unlikely Events Is a Necessary Part of Dispensing Justice
In general, I agree with truck drivers (who know way better than I do) that the most likely cause of any trailer separation truck accident is driver error. Where there's a bit of daylight in our positions is that I'm reluctant to blame any single incident on the most likely cause, because experience teaches me that unlikely things cause crashes all the time.
While I realize that such an attitude comes across as sneaky law-speak to some, the reason for this cautious approach is born of a desire to seek the truth and see justice fairly applied. Our entire system of justice rightlty has a built-in bias against punishing the innocent. So even if 99% of the time, a driver causes these kinds of collisions, manufacturing defects happen, so it's still wrong to punish drivers in the 1% of incidents where they didn't actually do anything wrong.
Yes, there are law firms out there who search out the deepest pockets and concoct whatever theory of liability they can to shift blame to those pockets. Thankfully, I don't work at one of those firms. Our guiding principle has always been to let the evidence and facts in each case do the talking. The advantage of this approach is that is still allows us to hold those who screw up accountable for their actions, but it also prevents innocent people from being blamed for something that wasn't their fault.
At the end of the day, however damning a newspaper account appears to be, it's not actually evidence. It's a reporter's best second-hand guess at what happened, based upon the local authorities best guess at what happened. So while I respect and understand why many professional truck drivers are ready to point the finger at the driver in the Billings, OK accident (again, they're probably right), we're all better off withholding judgment until all the facts come in. They'll either confirm conventional wisdom or point to an unexpected culprit.