Cargo-Related Accidents: Who is at fault?

By Michael GrossmanSeptember 09, 2015Reading Time: 3 minutes

Cargo-related accidents are of major concern. It seems like every week we open the newspaper and read about a motorist who was injured or killed by cargo that fell off of a commercial truck. Additionally, people may be killed or injured by cargo that hasn't fallen off trucks, but merely hung too far off the back or sides of the truck and protruded into the path of their vehicle. This leaves many people wondering: when these events occur, who should be held responsible for the losses?

In this article, we'll discuss possible scenarios in which improperly loaded or secured cargo can harm people on the roads, and we'll explain who is legally liable under each of them.

Examples of Cargo-Related Accidents

Imagine that an 18-wheeler is carrying a load of bricks on a flatbed trailer. The truck goes around a curve, and the load of bricks slips off the side and kills another motorist who just happened to be driving alongside. Who is at fault in a scenario like this?

If the truck was improperly loaded, then the law says that both the driver of the truck and the person who loaded it are at fault: the loader for negligently loading the cargo of bricks, and the trucker for not correcting the loader's mistake, as the trucker is ultimately responsible for cargo, to the extent that he, as a professional driver, could have reasonably foreseen such a problem occurring. On the other hand, if the cargo was loaded correctly and securely, but the driver failed to maintain the cargo properly or failed to stop at predetermined intervals inspect the cargo regularly as required by federal law, then blame could fall solely on the driver. Federal Motor Carrier Safety rules dictate that truck drivers must stop either every 100 miles, or every two hours, whichever occurs first, to inspect the cargo they are transporting. You're probably thinking, "But I've never seen a truck driver stopped to inspect their cargo." Yes, and that's exactly why these types of accidents are so prevalent.

Take another scenario. An 18-wheeler is transporting a large water tank on a flatbed trailer, the top of the tank strikes an overpass, knocking it backwards onto the road, at which point it crushes a vehicle and driver following behind. Assuming that the load is properly secured for normal transport, who is at fault in this example?

Given this fact pattern, there are multiple parties that may be at fault. If the load was 15 feet high and the bridge was marked with a 16 foot clearance, then the truck driver may have rightly assumed that there would be no issue, and whoever improperly marked the bridge would bear liability. However, if the bridge was marked as 16 feet but actually had a clearance of 15 feet, then whoever is responsible for maintaining the bridge/highway is at fault.

However, if the driver knew that the load was too high for the overpass ahead, then the driver could be found at fault for knowingly doing something that would cause a bad outcome. In other words, this would be considered negligence on part of the truck driver.

For the last example, imagine that a piece of cargo is hanging off the back of a flatbed truck, like a long steel girder. When the truck comes to a sudden stop, a motorist following behind is decapitated upon impact. Who would be at fault in this situation?

Here, fault would lie either with the driver of the car who was traveling behind the truck, or with the truck driver and the workers who loaded the girder onto the truck. It's legal to transport oversized cargo, provided that all of the additional safety rules for doing so are followed. This means that it would be unreasonable to assume that the truck driver is automatically responsible just because the cargo killed the driver of the passenger car. On the contrary, if the driver of the passenger car simply failed to recognize that there was an oversized load protruding from the back of the truck ahead of him, then the law would say that the death of that driver was the result of his own carelessness, and the truck driver would bear no liability.

Finally, if the oversized cargo was not properly marked and, as a result, the driver of the passenger car could not reasonably have discerned that the load was overhanging the rear of the trailer, then the blame shifts to either the truck driver or the person who loaded the oversized cargo. If there was a combination of negligence at the hands of the driver and the loaders that lead to a death, then they would both share fault.

Many of the same rules apply to passenger cars as well.

Every driver has the responsibility to ensure the safe and secure travel of both their vehicle and its cargo. Many of these concepts apply to passenger vehicles transporting cargo as well. If you have a question about this type of accident, or any 18-wheeler or car accident involving cargo, feel free to ask in the comments section below.