Improperly-Loaded Trailers Are a Serious Road Hazard.

Michael GrossmanOctober 05, 2016 9 minutes

A buddy of mine recently moved across town. To get the contents of his apartment from point A to point B, he rented a trailer to hitch to his car. It sounded good, but as we got started, it came to light he had no idea there was a "right" way to load the trailer. He was just going to stuff everything in there wherever it would go. I did not approve.

The thing about that method is that it's very dangerous. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of him for not simply tying things all over his car and cruising down the highway. That's problematic unto itself. With that said, though, physics aren't kind to unevenly-loaded trailers either. Any vehicle with an altered center of gravity doesn't require too much external influence to lose control, and if it hurts someone, that may be grounds for a personal injury lawsuit. While this specific event involved a rented hitch-trailer, the same definitely applies on a larger scale to commercial tractor-trailers.

What's the Problem with an Unevenly-Loaded Trailer?

On the individual, cross-town-move level, I'm talking about trailers that attach to personal vehicles via a tow-hitch, like this example:

U-pull trailer
U-Pull: America's favorite fake, non-copyright-infringing movers.

This kind of trailer also includes open-top equipment carriers, campers, and boat transports--anything that hitches up to the backs of cars and trucks with enough torque and horsepower to handle it.

There's also the tractor-trailer, which is also called a big rig, an 18-wheeler, and even a "lorry" if you're visiting from the UK. These are generally used more for commercial purpose, and virtually everyone has encountered at least a few of them, so I'm not going to put up a photo example. Since they're critical to the transportation of goods for interstate commerce, they are often loaded with thousands of pounds of cargo, up to a maximum of 80,000 pounds for a standard rig. That could be a 40+ ton trailer running merrily along in the lane next to you, which makes it all the more important to load it properly.

To be thorough, here's how the Texas Transportation Code (Chapter 7 Section 621.001) defines a trailer, which would seem to apply for both groups I've mentioned:

"Trailer" means a vehicle without motive power that is:
(A) designed or used to carry property or passengers on its own structure exclusively; and
(B) drawn by a motor vehicle.

vehicle and trailer pivot example

Personal trailers are very helpful for mid- to long-range moves, when their users have too much "stuff" for the back of a car or a pickup truck. They reduce the number of back-and-forth trips, adding a reasonable amount of space in which to stow belongings on the way to somewhere else. Their weakness isn't an inherent design flaw, but rather an aspect of physics. Thanks to the central pivot point created between the vehicle and the trailer by the tow hitch, turning the car left makes a balanced trailer turn right and vice versa, as illustrated to the right.

As noted, tractor-trailers are a staple of interstate commerce, and their drivers require special licensing to hit the road with hauls of virtually every kind of cargo, from pinto beans to Barbies to toxic waste. They're integral to keeping all kinds of consumer-facing stores stocked, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be a major link in the supply chain. Trained commercial drivers slow down considerably to make turns, which inevitably are "wide turns," as the signs on their trailers warn. Based on the way the truck portion is connected to the trailer, it takes some special arrangement of the two to successfully navigate corners. The tractor-trailer needs extra room to make that happen.

When traveling at an appropriate rate of speed and not tightly surrounded by traffic, neither personal nor commercial trailers cause any particular trouble. In both forms, a properly-balanced trailer will swerve some in the opposite direction of a turn, but will rapidly come back into line with the vector of travel. However, if a driver is in a particular hurry or is just trying to match the speed of highway traffic, the dangers of rapid course-correction are seriously compounded by an unbalanced trailer.

Trailers can become unbalanced either if their contents shift too far in a particular direction (poorly secured cargo) or if they were initially packed incorrectly, with the cargo's weight concentrated in the wrong place. The optimal packing of a personal trailer is to distribute weight carefully, with heavier material toward the front of the unit near the hitch. Professionals note that around 60% of the cargo weight should be located here, and 40% toward the rear of the trailer. However, amateur movers who don't have a lot of experience in loading cargo may well just put things wherever they'll fit--especially if the trip seems relatively short, like my friend's run across town to a new residence. This logic would most likely appeal to people who are keen to simply get the whole thing over with, and consider proper distribution of cargo to be too much work given the comparative distance of travel.

Likewise, a properly-loaded commercial truck will have the weight of its cargo distributed toward the center of the trailer, to place the burden of the weight equally between the front and rear axles supporting the trailer. This helps ensure minimal stress on the truck itself. Furthermore, most cargo is strapped or shrink-wrapped to pallets to maximize the surface area in contact with the trailer's inner surface. Pallets are packed close together to hold one another in place. All of this is meant to minimize cargo shift, which can cause serious problems if it occurs.

The real problem is that if a trailer swings too far in one direction during a course change, there is a strong likelihood of material inside it shifting to one side or another, throwing the trailer off track. A recent experiment modeled what it looks like when cargo weight is shifted from the front to the back of a hitched personal trailer:

Note how much difference a small shift in weight can make.
Note how much difference a small shift in weight makes.

As you can see, a lateral nudge to the front-loaded trailer results in a minor course shift that is rapidly corrected by the car's forward motion. The same force applied to the rear-heavy trailer, though, sends it further and further out of control every time the vehicle tries to correct course. This particular example doesn't play out to its logical conclusion before it's stopped, but it seems fair to conclude that when everything goes so far out of control, a crash is imminent.

In terms of commercial trailers, simply searching Google for "tractor trailer overturn" will flood the curious with examples of how easy it is to lose control of a multi-ton behemoth traveling too quickly for a sharp turn. Truck manufacturers are constantly trying to innovate and improve their vehicles' traction and steering to help avoid these calamities, but inertia is not so easily balked.

How Unevenly-Loaded Trailers Constitute Negligence

A driver who does not take the time to adequately stow his or her cargo in a trailer may be creating a hazard to other drivers when they take that unsecured load on the move. That means a vehicle-sized projectile conceivably could be whipped off the back of a moving car into a public street or highway, which in an urban setting is virtually guaranteed to be populated by other moving vehicles.

Commercial concerns that make use of big rigs have much the same obligation, albeit the risk is significantly magnified in mass and damage potential. As much as it is an economic concern not to lose inventory to an overturn, it is also a matter of the potential damage to other motorists that could come from a high-speed truck overturn on a highway. Ask most motorists who have crashed and they will say that everything felt like it happened in the blink of an eye; a truck overturn causes an instant and major snarl of traffic, and is a serious collision hazard to anyone with less-than-perfect brakes.

This is not to suggest that the loaders of either trailer were in any way malicious when putting things in it. It seems highly unlikely that anyone, civilian or corporate employee, would go out of his or her way to create such adverse and possibly-lethal circumstances on the road. However, the law doesn't let people off the hook simply because they did not intend to cause damage. Intent and premeditation are often concerns of criminal prosecution, but civil litigation primarily deals in results--that is, what you meant to happen isn't given as much weight as what actually did happen.

Negligence is a cause of action when a defendant fails to exercise a proper standard of care when performing an activity. In this case, the activity would be loading the trailer, and the standard of care would involve packing it in a careful manner where it is unlikely to become unstable during the trip, even in adverse driving conditions. Even for amateurs, the Internet has a number of helpful guides aimed toward this precise circumstance; it cannot be argued that preparatory information is unavailable, or that it would not have been possible to learn how best to arrange one's belongings within the trailer. Professionals loading corporate 18-wheeler trailers should have received training before being tasked to do so. If the defendant loaded and moved unsafely-prepared cargo, anyone injured by a resultant instability and/or crash may be eligible to pursue damages.

Proving a Negligence Claim for an Unsafe Trailer

Automobile accidents can of course cause severe injuries, and many drivers only carry the minimum mandatory insurance coverage allowed by law. In Texas, private motorists must be insured for $30,000 for each injured person, up to $60,000 per accident. Commercial motor vehicle drivers must carry a minimum of $750,000 per the federal government and the state of Texas requires that trucks operating within the state carry and additional $250,000 in liability coverage. Minimums aside, most freight brokers carry more insurance than required by law.

Especially in the event of a crash with a personal vehicle, it is startling how quickly any money awarded by insurance will disappear if the victim suffered severe damages. The hospital bills alone may very well drain what the offending driver's insurance is willing to offer in compensation. Commercial firms often send their own "investigators" to examine the accident and determine the most plausible story that lets them avoid liability. Subpoenaed documents from certain trucking firms have revealed that drivers are often encouraged to call the company and report the accident before contacting law enforcement, so the wheels can begin to spin on deniability as quickly as possible.

If struck by a trailer, be it personal or commercial, an injured party's only recourse to be made whole may be personal injury litigation.

To successfully pursue a negligence claim, a plaintiff's personal injury attorney will need to prove that the defendant breached a duty to his or her fellow motorists. As we mentioned before, all drivers have an implicit standard of care to observe, in which they take all possible precautions not to injure their fellow motorists. This normally takes the form of obeying known traffic laws, such as stopping at signs and lights, signaling when changing lanes, and driving within the speed limit. If a trailer is attached to the back of a driver's vehicle, their implicit duty then extends to keeping that trailer from causing damages to other drivers. It is understood that if a driver chooses to make use of a trailer for personal or commercial purposes, it will be properly secured to the vehicle, and will be loaded appropriately to minimize its chances of causing hazards on the road.

In the event of a traffic accident involving a wayward trailer, this breach of duty will be obvious, since an investigation will point to the trailer's improper use as the source of the injuries. The attorney must then prove that the trailer was the proximate, or direct, cause of the plaintiff's injuries. Analysis of a crash scene can readily find evidence of that, as a trailer leaves lots of tire tracks when it skids wildly around behind a vehicle. A crash is not a foregone conclusion when that happens, of course, but it is significantly more likely.

In the event of these crashes, it would certainly appear the unstable trailer was the proximate cause. With that in mind, the unlucky plaintiff who crashed into the trailer or the vehicle towing it (or both) must usually have serious demonstrable damages in order to successfully pursue compensation. While I won't argue against the pain and inconvenience of whiplash, headaches, mental trauma, and bruising, courts primarily award damages to claimants who required surgery or extended treatment by a health care provider. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of motorists hurt to this degree in crashes. Even with improved vehicular safety measures, people are often hospitalized with spinal damage, traumatic brain injuries, broken or fractured bones, internal bleeding, and other severe damages. In the worst cases, the trauma they suffer from crashing into an out-of-control trailer proves fatal.

Properly Loaded Trailers Can Reduce the Number of Crashes

For a personal move, I know it's not always financially possible to hire labor from professional movers with a full-sized truck. You may only need a little extra space for an afternoon of physical labor, moving things to and fro, and a small rental may fill that role nicely. It makes sense, but I urge anyone who's going to take this route to find out how to do it right. Check a few websites or watch some instructional Youtube videos. Get a hold of padding, bungee cords, and boxes.

Truckers and freight loaders, please correctly perform your duties. No doubt the vast majority of you do, and I respect and value your work, because Lord knows it'd be a lot harder to get what I need if stores never got their inventories. As the owner of a personal injury law firm, part of every day is sifting through dozens of reports about overturned trailers and the pain they cause other drivers. Some of those wrecks inevitably result from load-shift problems because a truck was hastily packed to get it moving sooner. Your employers don't want to be sued any more than you wanted to cause the wreck, so exercise care at the beginning to avoid an injurious end.

If you find yourself on the victim's end of a crash involving one of these errant trailers, know that you have options. Personal injury attorneys will assist you the best they can to help get your life back on track after a traffic collision. A consultation with most personal injury attorneys, Grossman Law included, is free. You don't have to go through it alone.