What Do I Do If I’m in an 18-Wheeler Chain Reaction Accident?

Michael GrossmanJanuary 05, 2017 6 minutes

On December 30, 2016, a chain-reaction collision begun by a 2001 Freightliner tractor-trailer led to one fatality and ten injured people on westbound Interstate 40 in St. Francis County, Arkansas.

According to the official report filed by the Arkansas state highway patrol, six passenger vehicles were moving slowly in a line as traffic passed by a collision scene on the highway. The Freightliner truck failed to reduce speed as it approached the line of vehicles, and it collided with the rearmost--a 2006 Ford occupied by driver David White, 68, and two passengers. The Ford then hit the vehicle in front of it, which proceeded to do the same in turn to the next, and so on up the line of 6 vehicles.

The force of the initial impact proved too much for David White, who died at the scene. Ten others, including two minors, were injured by the series of collisions that followed. According to the report, the road was dry and the weather was clear, discounting the possibility that the 18-wheeler's driver was somehow unable to stop the truck before running into the line of cars.

Known Injured Parties: Details

The following are the people specifically identified in the highway patrol's report. In keeping with protocol, the names of the minors were not released. The names are arranged numerically from the front of the line of cars to the back (David White's Ford vehicle). Vehicles not numbered in the list did not have occupants with injuries, per the report:

Vehicle #Vehicle TypeInjured Party NameParty Age
22017 InfinitiDeenie Cress52
22017 InfinitiKatie Montgomery49
22017 Infiniti(Minor 1)(undisclosed)
22017 Infiniti(Minor 2)(undisclosed)
32015 DodgeMichelle Jones39
42015 JeepAmber Kennedy29
52012 LexusRegina White32
62006 FordDavid White (d.)68
62006 FordDeann Rivera52
62006 FordDonna Cullum48
72001 FreightlinerNoe Cadena71

Physics are unkind in situations like this; the forward momentum of a 40-ton big-rig is not so easily stymied by a few tons of stationary passenger vehicles in its way. It's like a one-way Newton's Cradle, but triggered by a bowling ball. I hope all injured parties make a full and swift recovery.

Assessing Liability

It certainly appears at first blush that the trucker Noe Cadena will inherit the lion's share of the fault here. However, that should not be perceived as a "given" without further investigation. While some people mistakenly believe that a) Truckers are always liable for rear-end collisions and b) Any party who rear-ends another is automatically liable, neither of these suppositions is actually true. The reason behind his failure to to slow or stop is not yet clear and will definitely play a role in determining how to parse responsibility for the wreck. Moreover, the burden of proving the driver is at fault falls to the victims or their surviving families--no party is simply presumed liable until it has been conclusively proven.

It's worth noting that Grossman Law has seen many circumstances like this in the past. One example that comes to mind is the instance where a trucker maintained he failed to notice the traffic stopped in front of him due to being distracted by flashing ambulance lights. The layout was much as this current case has manifested, where traffic was backed up and the tractor-trailer began a chain-reaction of crashes. The trucking company's defense attempted to shift liability to the emergency responders at the scene for creating the spectacle that grabbed their driver's attention, with flashing lights and emergency vehicles. This misdirection was an attempt to distract from the fact that the driver was found to be exhausted and under the influence of cocaine at the time of the accident. This kind of buck-passing is not uncommon in terms of trucking defenses, as the goal is (understandably) to focus attention onto other parties. In a more ideal world, these firms would recognize their responsibility and compensate the victims accordingly. However, the point of an adversarial system is that everyone is afforded the right to defend his or her innocence--including businesses.

The firm has assembled a helpful guide about rear-end collisions and trucking accidents; if you have a few minutes, I encourage you to learn more about other strategies often employed by trucking companies during civil litigation.

What Do I Do If I'm Rear-Ended by a Trucker?

If (God forbid) you are injured in an automobile collision with an 18-wheeler, there is a strong likelihood that medical attention and recovery time will be necessary. After all, the occupants of six consecutive vehicles felt the impact of Cadena's truck colliding with just one of them.

A diligent and talented personal injury attorney will be invaluable in developing your claim against the trucker's employer. As a representative of a transportation firm, the trucker him- or herself is likely to be heavily insured for just such circumstances. In order to safely engage in interstate commerce while complying with legal requirements that vary by state, many companies insure each of their drivers for a minimum of one million dollars.

The attorney will need to establish that the trucker, as the employee of a commercial enterprise and a motorist operating under the auspices of the law, had an obligation--a duty--not to harm other motorists on the road. To this end, it is reasonable to expect the trucker to remain vigilant and responsive on the road. By crashing into the line of slowly-moving cars, the trucker breached his professional obligation to other occupants of the road. By proxy, the company for which he works breached a similar duty by allowing him to function in a representative capacity. In tort law, this idea is called respondeat superior, and is the legal principle suggesting that an employer can be held responsible for negligent behavior by employees during the reasonable course of their duties.

Given the demonstrated breach of duty, truck injury attorneys hired by the plaintiffs would then need to demonstrate that the collision was the proximate cause of their injuries. Put another way, it must be proven that the truck's failure to slow is responsible for damages suffered by the other drivers waiting in traffic. It would be difficult to claim that another factor was the catalyst for the wreck, given the elements in the traffic report; however, it's not outside the realm of possibility that the trucker will allege he was distracted by the accident scene for which the motorists had slowed. If enough "blame" can be shifted onto another party, such as the ambulance-service company or the Highway Patrol itself, it could be possible for the trucking firm to mitigate or even eliminate any damages it would have to pay the plaintiffs.

It's also important to note that defendants in these claims must be financially solvent and able to compensate the plaintiff. Between the trucker's employer and its million-dollar insurance policy, this should not prove an inhibition to the pursuit of justice, though the insurance policy will likely include a "per incident" cap that may affect how compensation would be divvied between any injured parties who elect to sue.

Why Professional Legal Help Can Be Necessary

Every time I write about traffic accidents or defective products or what-have-you, I can practically feel all the cynical eye-rolls from those who believe that I (and by extension the firm) must be pleased that someone got hurt, because such tragedies are attorneys' bread and butter. Right?

No. This depiction of attorneys as callous, money-grubbing blowhards is a result of bad attorneys often making the spotlight, but it is no more a hard-and-fast rule than it is with any other high-profile profession. Do doctors relish every new gunshot wound, every malignant growth on an X-ray? Are plumbers delighted to learn of a burst water heater that destroyed a family's home? Do firefighters feel a giddy thrill every time an alarm sounds to signify a fresh blaze? No. They identify a problem related to their chosen profession, and they make use of their training and extensive knowledge to address it.

We are also occasionally confronted by readers who believe we are somehow against the very idea of commercial trucking. That is entirely untrue. We are simply against negligence.Unfortunately, commercial freight has many elements that can suffer if negligence takes place:

  • If only a superficial driver background check is conducted, someone who has no business piloting 40 tons of diesel-fueled steel could be put on the road. That's bad for safety and bad for business.
  • Vehicles are complicated machines that require upkeep. If fleet trucks are not consistently and appropriately maintained, parts can break down at highway speeds. Likewise, this hazard can present itself if safety checks are inadequate or are conducted too hastily.
  • Drivers often find themselves at the mercy of very demanding delivery schedules, and travel long hours to make their drops on time. This can lead to some questionable decisions by those drivers, including occasional substance abuse to stay awake, and driving through dangerous levels of exhaustion.

Those are just a few quick examples, and in no way do I want to suggest they are the norm. For every runaway truck, thousands make it safely from place to place, obeying the law the whole way. However, when those aberrant events occur, it's important for people to have professionals to whom they can reach out. If they are the victims of negligence, it is very possible under the letter of the law that they are entitled to compensation, and that is where trained, ethical attorneys are glad to assist.