Client Stories: The 20-Ton Boulder Parked On The Shoulder

Michael GrossmanFebruary 11, 2019 4 minutes

If you're reading this, and you never needed one, you may not have a very high opinion of personal injury lawyers. Because most misconceptions about the profession are really misunderstandings about the law's structure and purpose, our firm occasionally writes about recent cases we've taken on, with the hope that illuminating the legal issues they involve will create more appreciation for the important contributions of our work.

The case we'll discuss today involves a semi-truck parked on the shoulder of a highway, when a woman driving by ended up colliding with it and suffering severe injuries. It illustrates that negligent commercial drivers are just as responsible for injuries caused by improper parking as they are for careless operation of their vehicles.

A Trucker's Careless Decision Has Tragic Consequences

Our client was on her way to work when another passenger vehicle traveling at high speed hydroplaned into her Ford Explorer, causing it to collide with a tractor-trailer parked on the shoulder of the road. As you might expect when an SUV hits a big rig weighing tens of thousands of pounds, its driver was badly hurt, sustaining a traumatic brain injury (TBI) among others.

While the name probably makes it obvious that these are more than just a bump on the head, unless a loved one has been afflicted with one, you may not have much understanding of just how disabling a TBI can be. The neurological damage often impacts every aspect of a person's life, making it impossible for them to return to their former job. Even everyday tasks like brushing teeth and making dinner often need to be painstakingly relearned.

As generally happens in crashes like this, the commercial driver in this case didn't just say "my bad," apologize, and take his lumps. He claimed to have pulled his rig onto the shoulder due to a mechanical emergency. Unfortunately for him, our attorneys gained access to dash cam footage with audio of an investigating officer contradicting his story. The officer can be heard informing the driver that he told him to move his truck an hour ago, demonstrating that the trucker had parked the rig there to take an extended break.

Some people might be sympathetic to the commercial driver in this situation, who may have had trouble finding parking elsewhere, and blame the driver who initially struck the Explorer. But it's an undeniable fact that the injuries to our client would have been much less significant if she had simply crashed into an open field, rather than a massive commercial vehicle that had no legal right to be there in the first place.

Think about it this way: if someone left a massive boulder on the side of a highway, with no indication of its presence, and you crashed into it, you'd expect that the person who left it there would be held responsible. Well, for legal purposes, a tractor-trailer works just like a larger, heavier boulder, and it's just as negligent to park one on the side of the road. Federal regulations only allow truck drivers to do so in a genuine emergency, and even then they're required to put out extensive warning markers.

How The Civil Justice System Allows Us to Hold The Truck Driver Accountable

This case is still in the early stages, so we're pretty far from knowing how a jury will decide it. Based on the facts as we understand them, it's highly likely that they'll place at least some portion of the blame on the driver of the speeding vehicle. But we expect that at least 51% of it will still go to the semi-truck's driver for parking his rig on the shoulder of the highway.

This is because our civil justice system apportions fault based on whether or not a defendant's behavior is the proximate cause, or the event without which the plaintiff wouldn't have been harmed. It's pretty reasonable to argue that our client wouldn't have been nearly as badly injured if her car had just run off the road, as opposed to leaving the road and striking a massive semi-truck.

The car that ran our client off the road would be considered an intervening cause: something that could also be blamed for the events that caused the plaintiff's damages. These divide into superseding causes, which get a defendant off the hook, and concurrent causes, which don't. A superseding cause involves a genuinely unforeseeable situations, like a tornado picking up a truck and slamming it into traffic.

However, in the case of the semi-truck, the vehicle sending the plaintiff off the road would properly be considered a concurrent cause. Because it coincides directly with the original negligence of the semi driver parking improperly, he's still liable for her injuries.

This may make more sense if you consider it from a different angle. Suppose that someone leaves an open pit somewhere, with no warning signs. Two teens are walking through the field when one shoves the other in jest. The push causes him to fall into the pit, resulting in a bad injury. In one sense, the shove "caused" him to fall, but his injuries would never have happened if the pit had been covered over. In this situation, it's the person who left the pit open who deserves to learn their lesson, even if the kid who did the shoving was a bit careless.

All of this is significant because, under Texas law's doctrine of modified joint comparative fault, if more than one entity contributed to your losses, and a jury determines one of them to have more than half the blame, you can collect 100% of your costs from them. This avoids a scenario where a defendant who bears most of the responsibility gets off easier, just because there was also a third party who also contributed. That's more or less exactly the scenario discussed here.

Given the evidence that our attorneys have already compiled, what we expect to obtain through further investigation and deposition, and the law being on our side, there's every reason to expect that we'll be able to deliver justice for our client and their family when we ultimately resolve this case.