Mechanical Failures in Single-Vehicle 18-Wheeler Accidents

Michael GrossmanOctober 13, 2015 6 minutes

Single-vehicle 18-aheeler accidents happen regularly and more than they should. Most of the time, authorities and the general public assume that if there was only one vehicle involved in a crash, then the driver must have done something wrong, such as failing to maintain speed, failing to adjust to weather conditions, distracted driving, or driving while intoxicated.

The problem with assuming that an 18-wheeler driver caused their own crash is that often they didn't. What makes these crashes particularly devastating to the injured drivers or family members of those who died is they end up being blamed something beyond their control. By far, mechanical failures or defects are behind crashes where a driver is wrongfully blamed for a crash that wasn't their fault.

Some of the mare common issues, which can lead to truck accidents are:

  • brake failure
  • steering failure
  • tire blowouts,
  • or a tire that completely falls off of the vehicle.

Large commercial trucks requires special training to drive them safely, even under the best of circumstances. When a mechanical failure causes a wreck, it often goes undetected and the party responsible for injuring or killing the driver escapes accountability for their actions. This is wrong.

In Crashes Where the Truck Driver Isn't At Fault — Who is to Blame?

At this point, you may wonder how dangerous mechanical conditions that lead to crashes can be allowed to exist. Doesn't a commercial truck have to pass inspections with its trucking company in order to be on the road? Yes, in fact, it does. Most commercial vehicles such as 18-wheelers and delivery trucks have to pass both a federal and state inspection (for Texas, the state DOT inspection and the federal FMCSA inspection). If this is the case, then why are so many commercial trucks still in such dangerous condition?

There are two main culprits for mechanical failures that lead to single-vehicle 18-wheeler crashes. First, the vehicle's owner has a duty to maintain the vehicle. Even the best manufactured parts will fail at a certain point. That's why regular maintenance isn't just necessary to keep the truck running, but also to keep it safe. Sadly, the cut-throat nature of the commercial trucking industry leads some players to postpone necessary maintenance in order to cut costs.

Of course, all the maintenance in the world doesn't do any good if there is a manufacturing defect or flaw in the vehicles design to begin with. These are the most overlooked causes of single-vehicle 18-wheeler crashes due to the fact that most police investigators receive minimal training on how to identify vehicle defects. Even if an investigator is able to spot the mechanical failure (instead of blaming the driver for their own crash), this minimal training leaves investigators unable to distinguish between a part that failed because of poor maintenance and one which was dangerous from the day it was made. As a consequence, in crashes where the mechanical failure is so obvious that anyone could spot the problem, it's invariably chalked up to poor maintenance.

Mechanical Failures Can Turn Survivable Wrecks Into Fatal Crashes

Authorities have a poor track record recognizing crashes where the mechanical issue caused the wreck. It's downright abysmal when a mechanical failure doesn't cause the crash, but increases the severity of any resulting injuries. In many instances, a mechanical failure or defect can turn an otherwise survivable crash into a fatal one.

For example, my firm litigated a case several years ago involving a dump truck that rolled over at a construction site. At the time of the incident, the driver was sitting in his truck on a small embankment. The embankment was a mere 3 feet above the dirt below. It gave way and caused the truck to tip on its side. In any well-designed and properly built vehicle, the driver should have walked away from this type of crash with minor cuts or bruises. In this instance, the truck's cab was so poorly made that it crushed and killed the driver.

In this instance, the deceased driver's family recognized that something about the official versions of events didn't add up. They reached out to my firm and our investigation supported their suspicion, which ultimately led to holding the vehicle's manufacturer accountable for their shoddy design.

Had the family simply listened to the authorities' version of events, the manufacturer would have never faced consequences building a truck that couldn't even tip over without crushing its occupants. Even though their bad design didn't cause the crash, it did turn what should be a survivable crash into a fatal one.

What Is the Correct Way to Determine if a Mechanical Failure Caused a Single-Vehicle 18-Wheeler Wreck?

Years ago, I was involved in a case west Texas. An 18-wheeler driver crashed into another car, killing an occupant in that car. When the authorities arrived on the scene to conduct their investigation, they knew they wanted the data from the 18-wheeler's engine control module (ECM), which records a truck's speed, braking, seat-belt usage, and other information vital to a proper crash investigation.

There was just one problem: the investigators didn't have access the equipment necessary to pull that data, nor did they have the training on how to operate that equipment. Their solution was to ask the trucking company (the one whose driver may have killed someone) to pull the data and forward it to them for their file. Not to pick on these investigators, but they certainly wouldn't have asked a suspected drug dealer to pass along his text messages to them in order for the authorities to determine whether the dealer was trafficking in narcotics.

I share this story because the only way to confirm whether a mechanical failure caused a crash is with a proper investigation. Victims often believe that the police do this investigation for them. Sadly, in most instances, they do not. It's not because they don't care, but rather they lack the training, equipment, and resources to uncover or rule out all but the most obvious mechanical failures.

Tracking down a mechanical failure requires not only a thorough examination of the vehicle, but one done by a trained professional who knows what they're looking for.

Liability For Single-Vehicle Mechanical Malfunction 18-Wheeler Accidents

Once an investigation confirms what part of the vehicle failed and how it failed, the next question is "Who is responsible for that failure?"

Liability for Crashes Caused by Improper Maintenance

In instances where failure to properly maintain a vehicle causes a mechanical malfunction that leads to crash, the vehicle's owner bears responsibility for that failure. Legally speaking, we refer to this as negligence, or the failure of one person to perform a duty that they owed to another. Obviously, if the owner of the vehicle is an owner-operator, then no duty exists. Causing your own truck to crash, whether through driver error or failure to properly maintain it doesn't make any real difference. However, when the driver is an employee of another company, then work injury law governs who can be held accountable.

In every state but Texas, this usually means that the matter is settled through workers' compensation (with exceptions in some states for truly shocking behavior on the employer's part). In Texas, not every employer participates in the workers' compensation program. For those that do participate, then the matter is resolved through workers' compensation. For those whose employer's do not have workers' compensation coverage, then the worker can file a lawsuit against the employer to recover their losses.

Liability for Crashes Caused by Vehicle Defects and Design Flaws

While more difficult to detect, absent a proper investigation, once it is determined that a manufacturing defect or design flaw caused a driver's injury or death, whom to hold responsible is clear cut. Manufacturers have a duty to ensure that their products are as safe as is technologically and economically feasible. In short, if a $2 part could have prevented injuries to you or your loved one, the manufacturer has a duty to make that part of their design. Similarly, if the manufacturer simply made a substandard part, they could also be liable for injuries or deaths that result from that failure.

In this situation, a victim's remedy to hold the manufacturer accountable for their bad product is a products liability lawsuit.

What Steps Should an Injured Truck Driver Take After a Single-vehicle Accident?

As I stated at the outset, many single-vehicle crashes are in fact caused by driver error. Unfortunately, too many people, including many crash investigators, assume that every single-vehicle 18-wheeler crash is the driver's fault. The first step to sorting out which is which is for victims or the loved ones of deceased victims to trust their gut. If it's perfectly obvious to you that your crash was the result of driver error, then that's probably a good explanation. If on the other hand, something strikes you as off about the official account of events, then there is nothing wrong with seeking a second opinion from a knowledgeable source, like the attorneys at Grossman Law Offices, or any other firm with experience in these types of cases.

Here's what a firm experienced in these types of cases can provide to victims. First, my attorneys and I open-minded. We've seen too many instances where authorities blamed a driver for crash that was not the driver's fault. Secondly, we know what to look for and whom to bring in to conduct the type of investigation that's usually impossible at a crash scene. This means we secure the vehicle, have experts examine it, and base our conclusions on scientific facts. Our first goal is the truth. If that means we have to have a tough conversation with you, well, that's our job. However, if we uncover a better explanation for your single-vehicle 18-wheeler crash, we'll share that with you and pursue the wrong-doer.

Not only do these efforts ensure that employers and manufacturers are held accountable for their shortcomings, but they foster a culture of safety, which prevents future injuries and deaths due to mechanical failures.