Wheel-Off Truck Accidents

A Guide for Victims

A wheel-off accident, also called a wheel separation, is an accident involving a commercial vehicle where the entire wheel assembly of a truck or trailer—meaning its wheel, tire, and possibly even a portion of the axle or drivetrain—breaks free from the vehicle and hits another car or person. While not as common as many other kinds of commercial wreck, a wheel-off accident can still cause devastating damage including serious or even fatal injuries.

In this article, we will explain how wheel-off accidents occur and what legal options exist to hold the wrongdoers accountable. There's a lot of information to cover, so for your convenience we have broken it into multiple specific chapters.

Chapter 1 - Five Things You Need to Know about Wheel-Off Accident Cases

In this guide page we’ll look in great detail at how wheel-off accident cases work, but if you take nothing else away from it at least be aware of these five important points:

  1. Wheel-off cases are exceptionally complex. Most personal injury attorneys are "car accident attorneys." They handle one subset of auto accidents with clear rules, and the cases they take involve a fairly limited set of facts, minimal investigation, and little commitment of resources.
    Wheel-off cases are worlds apart from car accidents and generally involve multiple intersecting areas of the law. They tend to need extensive investigation and significant resource investment, leaving many injury firms unequipped to handle them.
  2. You can’t resolve a wheel-off case without a proper investigation. Unlike a car wreck where you may have a fairly good idea of who's responsible, there could be several parties that contribute to a wheel-off accident. With so much opportunity to pass the buck, those parties often try to point accusatory fingers at one another and evade blame.
    How do you stop their bickering and hold the wrongdoer accountable? In a word: Evidence. However, the needed proof isn't always apparent at first glance, so you need a thorough professional investigation to find all the facts.
  3. Wheel-off investigations are resource-intensive. A proper wheel-off accident investigation requires help from knowledgeable experts, such as engineers, metallurgists, mechanics, and trucking industry specialists. There are a limited number of people with the needed expertise available at any given time, which means they're in high demand and their help is not cheap.
    What does that mean for a wheel-off accident victim? It means finding the right allies is crucial. Quite frankly, most personal injury firms don’t have the resources to fund a comprehensive investigation or consult qualified experts. That could mean they cut corners and hurt your case, or it could mean they just won't take it in the first place. It may be an awkward conversation, but before you hire an attorney for your wheel-off accident case be sure to ask whether or not they have the wherewithal to see it all the way through.
  4. Starting sooner is always better than starting later in a wheel-off case. For those just trying to get back on their feet after a commercial accident, the idea of taking swift action may seem intimidating. The truth is that someone must ensure witnesses don't disappear or forget details, find and preserve evidence before it can degrade or disappear, and keep the case from exceeding the statute of limitations imposed by state law. If the right steps aren't taken in a timely manner, any potential case may be seriously damaged.
  5. The vast majority of personal injury attorneys may never handle a wheel-off accident. Many will handle hundreds if not thousands of car wreck cases over the course of their practice. They may handle a few commercial truck accident cases as well, but since wheel-off cases are relatively few and far between most attorneys will never see a single one come across their desks.
    Why does this matter to you? Well, given the complexity of the law and the resources necessary to successfully resolve these cases, it’s probably best not to let an attorney who’s never handled one practice on yours. For that reason, we encourage anybody looking for help with a wheel-off case to be very blunt with any potential representative. Ask them if they’ve handled any similar cases before, and if so how they went. Most importantly, ask them “How do you plan to resolve my case?”
    If the attorney can’t answer you or just says “Trust me,” that should be a big red flag. If they say something like “It’s really complicated and you wouldn’t understand,” that should also get your Spidey sense tingling.
    Think of it this way: You’re hiring someone to explain a complex matter to a jury of regular people in such a way that they decide in your favor. If your attorney can’t even explain to you how your case will work in a way you understand, how will they do so to a jury?

Those are the most urgent takeaways of this guide, but that's far from all there is to say about wheel-off accidents. From here, we'll into more comprehensive detail.

Chapter 2 - What Exactly Is a Wheel-Off Accident?

As we mentioned before, a wheel-off accident is a specific kind of vehicular accident in which a wheel assembly comes off a passenger or commercial vehicle and strikes other vehicles or people. While comparatively rare, these accidents have the capacity to cause tremendous harm.

One of the best ways to understand what a wheel-off accident is to know what it is not. When we refer to these accidents, we aren’t referring to situations where a vehicle loses a wheel during or after a collision. We're also not talking about a vehicle losing a wheel during maintenance, like a car slipping off the jack during a tire change. We are talking about a scenario where a wheel and tire, and sometimes other pieces of the suspension system, separate from a vehicle while it’s in motion—effectively turning the loose wheel into a rolling missile.

Most times a major wheel-off accident results from a commercial vehicle, like an 18-wheeler, losing a wheel. Why? Because passenger cars typically have wheels ranging from 15 to 25 pounds, with a tire of similar weight. Fifty pounds of rolling steel and rubber can certainly cause serious or even fatal injuries if it hits someone, but most often it just causes some property damage before stopping.

With commercial vehicles, however, the wheel and tire combination can weigh 200 pounds or more. Here's the real kicker, though: Many trucks have dual wheels attached together, which means anywhere from 400-500 pounds could be barreling down a highway during one of these incidents. Between the increased weight and the tires' high air pressure, those loose truck wheels are capable of inflicting far more damage than a car wheel.

The amount of force involved in a crash with a separated truck wheel is truly staggering; an imperfect analogy might be the difference in damage between a car hitting a dog versus one slamming into a cow. We've seen cases where detached wheels have so much mass and forward momentum that they literally roll for miles down the highway after detaching—and demolish almost anything unlucky enough to enter their path.

In short, you can certainly pursue a wheel-off accident claim against the driver of a passenger vehicle. Indeed, some pickup trucks and SUVs have large enough wheels and tires that their separation incidents sometimes have abnormally dire results. For the most part, though, wheel-off accident cases involve commercial vehicles due simply to the fact that a wheel coming off such a vehicle causes far more damage on average.

Chapter 3: What Kind of Case Is a Wheel-Off Case?

The way the general public talks about legal cases is very different than how attorneys and courts talk about them. For example, what a regular person would call a car wreck case a lawyer would generally call a negligence case. Similarly, what someone might call a defective products case, a lawyer might refer to as a strict liability case.

Those distinctions may seem like mere semantics at first, but there’s actually a good reason for them: Lawyers typically think of and define cases in terms of what they must prove to win them. For instance, what they have to prove in a negligence case would be quite different from what they'd have to prove in a strict liability case.

In this chapter we will talk about the different legal theories that typically apply to the wheel-off fact pattern, using legally-significant terms rather than broader colloquial ones. In legal parlance, a wheel separation case most often takes the form of either a negligence case, a negligence per se case, a strict liability products liability case, a negligence products liability case, or a breach of warranty products liability case. Let's look more closely at each of those.


In a negligence case an attorney must prove the following elements:

  1. Someone had a duty not to do harm;
  2. Their action or inaction violated or breached that duty;
  3. That breach was the cause of the victim's injuries; and
  4. The injured party suffered clear and quantifiable damages.

That's just a quick overview, though. We encourage anyone interested in learning more in-depth about the elements of negligence to read our comprehensive guide on the subject. The bottom line, however, is this: The owner of a vehicle has a clear obligation to keep that vehicle safe for its operator and everyone else.

A trucking company is certainly not exempt from that expectation, and as such it has a duty to keep the vehicles in its fleet roadworthy. That's supposed to be achieved by regular checks and maintenance, yet in some cases those don't happen. If the company ignores its duty and its truck's wheel hurts someone after detaching, the victim may have a viable negligence case. These cases are generally directed toward the trucks' owners and operators and are often referred to as negligent maintenance or negligent inspection claims.

Negligence Per Se

Negligence per se typically involves a lawyer taking a statute (typically a criminal law) and showing that its purpose was to protect a particular group of people their client belongs to. If the defendant violated that statute, the lawyer can effectively take a "shortcut" toward proving the defendant was negligent.

Example: A city ordinance clearly says "Any vacant lot must have a fence around it to keep children out." A landlord in that city owns a vacant lot but doesn’t fence it, and one day a boy wanders onto the property and gets injured when he falls into a big hole.

Rather than proving the four elements of negligence we mentioned before, we would just say that the clear purpose of the city ordinance is to protect children and the client is a child. By violating that ordinance the landlord exhibited negligence per se, which allows us to establish duty and breach with less effort.

Applying the concept to a wheel-off accident, we typically look to laws regarding mandatory inspections of commercial vehicles. For instance, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act requires over-the-road drivers to evaluate their trucks' condition—including that of their wheels—before and after every trip. If we can show the lug nuts were slowly working their way out of a trailer wheel over the course of 3 weeks and nobody noticed or fixed them, that’d be a pretty strong indication that the regulations weren't followed. The argument could then be made that we don’t have to prove duty and breach the standard way, but instead simply show the driver violated a statute meant to protect the public.

Products Liability: Strict Liability

Products liability cases are typically based on the idea that the manufacturer of a product is in the best possible position to make sure it is safe before it's released into the stream of commerce. With that in mind, under a theory of strict liability the manufacturer would be considered liable for the harm their product causes to end-users—even if the company was careful in designing and making it.

Strict liability applies once you show that a finished product is unreasonably dangerous. For instance, let's say a trailer manufacturer releases a model of trailer where several in every thousand off the line have wheels that randomly fall off. One could easily argue that's unreasonably dangerous: Millions and millions of wheeled vehicles are put on the market every year and their wheels don’t fall off, so one whose wheels do that clearly has something wrong with it.

Once it’s demonstrated that the product is unreasonably dangerous, the manufacturer is strictly liable even if they tried to make it safe. In other words, the buck stops with them. Wheel-off cases often involve suing the manufacturer of a truck tractor or a trailer because the vehicle left the facility in an unreasonably dangerous state, ultimately leading to a detached wheel and a serious accident.

Products Liability: Negligence

Under a negligence products liability theory, a manufacturer is thought to have been careless in one or more phases of a product's development such as designing, building, and/or testing the item.

If an assembly line worker put the wrong-sized lug nuts into a wheel, or someone programmed the welding robot incorrectly and the welds didn't go deep enough, or too many impurities made it into the metal when casting the lugs, any of those serious and costly mistakes could arguably be called negligence.

Even if a manufacturer buys components from overseas, failure to confirm they were as advertised might be construed as negligent. More than one company has been promised stainless steel parts, only to receive zinc-alloy components made of pot metal. It falls to the company to properly test and verify anything they create or use in the construction of their product.

Products Liability: Breach of Warranty

When most people think of the term "warranty" they think of a literal promise by a manufacturer that they'll replace a product if it doesn't live up to expectations. While that is one kind, the legal concept of warranty is actually much broader. It effectively refers to a claim made by the manufacturer, and the law holds manufacturers responsible for those claims.

The most typical form of those is express warranties, which are specific claims or promises made by the manufacturer. A warranty may also be what’s called an implied warranty, which means it's actually imposed by law. Let's consider a couple of examples.

Example 1: The manufacturer of a commercial trailer tells prospective buyers that the lug nuts on its wheels are properly torqued straight from the factory. There's no mistaking their claim, as it's even specified in their literature. If it then turned out not to be true and customers had to tighten the lug nuts themselves (or else risk wheel detachment), that would mean the manufacturer was in breach of an express warranty. Anyone hurt by that breach would likely have grounds for a lawsuit.

Example 2: Rather than expressly promising their lug nuts are tightened right off the line, the manufacturer simply lets that be taken for granted by customers. At that point the product is still under the implied warranty of merchantability, which is the basic premise that a merchant's product should work as it's supposed to without malfunctioning or being unreasonably dangerous. This is not an express warranty but rather an understood obligation imposed on companies by the law.

In conclusion, there are various different legal theories that our attorneys could use to hold a manufacturer responsible after a wheel-off accident. It’s all case-specific and involves choosing the appropriate tool for the case.

Chapter 4 - Who Might be Liable for a Wheel-Off Accident?