Articles Posted in Truck Accidents

A North Carolina company recently agreed to pay $3.75 million to a South Carolina couple who were rear-ended by a company truck while Tractor-trailer-Rear-ending-Passenger-Car2the truck driver was talking on his cell phone.  The company, Unify, Inc., is a yarn manufacturer that has 60 trucks traveling across U.S. highways.  At the time of the collision, Unify had a company policy allowing its drivers to use their cell phones for a maximum time period of two minutes while they were operating company trucks.  Lawyers for the injured couple contended the company’s policy promoted dangerous behavior, as Unify failed to enforce the policy.  The at-fault driver’s cell phone logs showed that he would routinely use his cell phone for periods as long as seven hours during an approximate eight hour driving shift.  Other evidence produced during the case showed that other Unify truck drivers also violated the company policy.

Often, it takes a significant settlement payment to cause companies to change the way they operate.  This case was no exception.  As a result of the collision and settlement reached in the case, Unify decided to change its policy and prohibit its truck drivers from using cell phones or other mobile devices while operating their trucks on the roadway.

In 2012, the Federal Motor Carrier Association approved a new regulation that banned hand-held phone use by commercial vehicle drivers.  However, hands-free use of a cell phone, such as using a wireless Bluetooth device, is permitted.  The federal regulation is merely a minimum standard.  That does not mean that it is the best or safest standard.  Some trucking firms ban any cell phone use while their drivers are operating their trucks and have taken measures to enforce the rules.  For example, companies have installed cameras in the truck cabins, allowing them to monitor their drivers’ behavior while operating the trucks.

The tragic deaths of five young women on Interstate 16 recently is a stark reminder of the dangers that tractor-trailers pose to all drivers on Georgia highways.  Five Georgia Southern University nursing students, riding in two cars, died when a tractor-trailer failed to stop for traffic slowed by a prior accident on I-16 in Bryan County during the early morning hours of April 22, 2015.  Two other students were injured.  The GSU students were on their way to their last day of clinical rotations at a Savannah hospital. Sadly, this tragedy might have been avoided with the use of “crash avoidance” technology on tractor-trailers.  Forward collision avoidance and mitigation technology is already fully-developed and comes as a standard feature on many new automobiles.  This life-saving technology works by taking over the brakes and engine of the tractor-trailer when an imminent collision is anticipated and alerting the driver to the danger.  Many systems brake the vehicle autonomously if the driver does not respond.  An auto brake system may not always be able to prevent a crash, but it can reduce the vehicle speed, mitigating the severity of the crash and injuries caused thereby.

Not only is forward crash avoidance technology available, studies have shown that it can prevent collisions and fatalities.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the U.S. government agency whose mission is to achieve “the highest standards of excellence in motor vehicle and highway safety.”  NHTSA is well aware of the existence and effectiveness of forward collision avoidance technology.   It estimates that current forward collision avoidance technology could prevent over 2,500 crashes each year and future generation systems could prevent over 6,300 crashes annually.  In Australia, that country’s equivalent of our Department of Transportation investigated forward collision avoidance technology.  A detailed study of Australian crashes found that the use of such technology would have resulted in a 20-40% reduction in the number and severity of fatal crashes and a 30-50% reduction of injuries.   In light of such evidence, one must question why NHTSA has failed to move forward and require that this basic crash avoidance technology be installed on all tractor-trailers.  Estimates of the cost to retrofit current tractor-trailers to meet this standard are in the range of $500 per truck.  This cost pales in comparison to the costs and consequences of lost lives and severe injuries resulting from tractor-trailer collisions.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are nearly 100,000 injuries and 4,000 deaths annually on U.S. highways as a result of tractor-trailer collisions.  In 2013, 97% of those killed in two-vehicle crashes involving a large truck and a smaller passenger vehicle were the occupants of the smaller automobile.  Georgia is currently among the top five states in the U.S. in truck-related fatalities.  Steve Owings is the President and Co-Founder of Road Safe America.  Mr. Owings lost his son, Cullum, when the car Cullum was driving was barreled into from behind, in stopped traffic, by a tractor-trailer.  Road Safe America, joined by the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and other highway safety groups, is calling on Congress and NHTSA to require forward collision avoidance technology on all current and future tractor-trailers.  Last week’s heartbreaking wreck is another example of the tragedy that can occur when a truck driver is distracted or otherwise not alert.  It is time that the trucking industry implemented the technology that is already available to take over and avoid a collision when a fatigued and distracted truck driver does not do so manually.  Savannah native Abbie Deloach, Emily Clark, Morgan Bass, Catherine McKay Pittman, and Kaitlyn Baggett were, by all accounts, outstanding young women with promising careers and lives ahead of them.  Let’s honor their memories by demanding that Congress and NHTSA immediately require the installation and use of forward collision avoidance technology on all tractor-trailers.

Dram shop liability is a legal theory that establishes that bars, taverns, liquor stores, and other businesses that sell alcoholic beverages can be held liable for damages caused by their patrons. These laws are aimed to prevent bars, taverns, and retail stores from selling alcohol to minors and to individuals who are visibly intoxicated. The term “dram shop” comes from the shops serving “drams,” which is a term for a small measure of alcohol, usually gin.

Recently in Colorado, the parents of a 16 year old girl filed suit against the Bayou Cajun Restaurant and Bar and one of its bartenders under a theory of dram shop liability. According to the Colorado State Patrol, the girl and two of her friends were served alcohol at the restaurant and subsequently got into an accident with a tractor-trailer that resulted in all three girls losing their lives. At the time of the accident, the driver had a blood alcohol level of 0.241, more than three times the legal limit. Unfortunately, these types of accidents are all too common, and many times could have been prevented if not for the negligence of the “dram shop” involved.

Under Georgia law, bars, restaurants, liquor stores and other establishments that sell alcohol to patrons have a responsibility not to sell alcohol to noticeably intoxicated patrons who they know will soon be driving, as well as minors. If they do so, they may be held liable for causing the personal injuries sustained by innocent motorists at the hands of drunk drivers served at their establishments.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announced recently that new Federal Regulations, which will hopefully improve safety on the roads by reducing truck driver fatigue, have been enacted. The new, so-called “hours of service” regulations became effective on July 1, 2013. These regulations were first announced in December of 2011 by FMCSA, and trucking companies were given 18 months to adopt the new rules for their truck drivers. The new hours of service rules do the following:

(1) limit the maximum average work week for truck drivers to 70 hours, down from the current maximum allowed of 82 hours;

(2) allow truck drivers who reach the maximum 70 hours of driving within 1 week to resume driving after they have rested for 34 consecutive hours; and (3) require truck drivers to take a 30 minute break during the first 8 hours of a driving shift.

The importance of a thorough investigation after a serious truck accident cannot be Tractor Trailer.jpgoverstated. Often, key evidence exists on an onboard computer on the truck and also in paperwork required to be maintained by truck drivers and trucking companies.

Investigations sometimes reveal that a trucking company or a specific truck driver did not follow federal regulations and even took steps to circumvent federal regulations with bogus entries on log books and inspection reports. Sometimes the paperwork can reveal warning signs to a company about the condition of the truck or trailer before an accident. In some cases, the condition of the truck or trailer, at the time of the wreck, is determined to be the cause of the crash.

Trucking companies are required to keep specific records on their drivers, trucks, and trailers, but are only required to keep that information for a limited period of time. It is important that the attorney for the accident victim contact the trucking company as soon as possible after an accident and demand that the evidence be preserved.

One tactic that has been used recently by trucking companies has been to quickly repair the truck and/or trailer, in an effort to deprive the objective inspection of the truck and/or trailer. Sometimes by the time an accident victim has hired an attorney, the truck and/or trailer has been placed back in service, resulting in critical evidence being lost.
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A Georgia judge struck a trucking company’s defense in a lawsuit after it was discovered that the trucking company had destroyed evidence. In the case captioned Alegria v. Howard and AAA Cooper Transportation, Inc., pending in the Superior Court of DeKalb County, Georgia, Judge Courtney L. Johnson ruled that AAA Cooper Transportation had denied the existence of evidence from a so-called black box recording device on one of its tractor trailers that was involved in a wreck, and that the company destroyed the recording device. Among other things, black box recording devices can show whether a truck driver was speeding when a crash occurred and whether the truck had problems with braking.

The legal term for the destruction of evidence is “spoliation.” It constitutes an obstruction of justice. The issue of spoliation comes up often in cases involving collisions with tractor trailers or trains. Typically, experienced trucking accident attorneys will send what is known as a spoliation letter to the company that owns or has control over the tractor trailer or train involved in a collision, instructing them to preserve evidence that is crucial to the case. Such evidence includes data or printouts from on-board recording devices and the recording devices themselves. In the lawsuit in question, Mr. Alegria’s attorneys had sent a spoliation letter to the trucking company’s risk manager thirteen days after the wreck. Judge Johnson ruled that the trucking company destroyed the black box recording device despite having received the spoliation letter.

The lawsuit arose when one of AAA Cooper Transportation’s tractor trailers collided with a pick-up truck that had spun out on a rain soaked road and was sitting in the middle of the highway. The driver of the pick-up alleged that he saw the tractor trailer coming, but could not get his door open in time to exit the pick-up truck. He rolled down his window and waived his arms frantically at the driver of the tractor trailer before the tractor trailer crashed into the driver side of his pick-up truck. As a result of the collision, the driver of the pickup truck, Mr. Alegria, suffered an amputation of his leg and a separated shoulder. Mr. Alegria then sued the trucking company, alleging that its driver was negligent in driving too fast for the existing conditions and in failing to avoid the collision.

299523_i_haul_.jpgFatigue and lack of sleep while driving an 18 wheel tractor-trailer rig can cause accidents and deaths on the highways. Under the existing rules that govern trucking companies, these companies can compel their drivers to drive up to 11 hours in a 21 hour time period. Drivers are allowed to drive up to 88 hours in an 8 day period. Whereas most people work a 40 hour week, current rules governing truck drivers allow them to cram more than 2 weeks of work (driving) in slightly over 1 week. This inevitably results in truck drivers driving for very long periods without adequate time off to rest. That, in turn, can lead to fatigue and other symptoms caused by sleep deprivation. 65% of truck drivers have reported feeling tired or drowsy while driving. Astonishingly, 48% of truck drivers have reported that they have fallen asleep while operating an 18 wheeler. The legal weight for an 18 wheeler is 80,000 (40 tons). By comparison, the average weight of an automobile is slightly over 5,000 pounds. One can imagine the devastation that can result when an 18 wheeler weighing 80,000 pounds and being driven by a sleepy driver collides with an automobile weighing 5,000 pounds.

Recently, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has proposed changing the rules by reducing the number of hours that truck drivers are allowed by law to drive in 1 day, the so-called Hours of Service rules. The agency is recommending that maximum driving time be reduced from 11 hours to 10 hours a day. Other recommendations involve giving drivers a 1 hour break during each day by limiting their actual duty time from 14 to 13 hours. Drivers are already required to get 8 hours rest each day. Opponents of the proposed rule changes argue that the new rules will further complicate the trucking industry and add additional regulatory costs to an already overburdened U.S. Government. Proponents of the proposed rule changes argue that they will improve safety for all drivers on our highways.

As Georgia truck accident lawyers who have represented injured victims of tractor-trailer/automobile collisions and their family members, we encourage Congress to do everything possible to stop trucking companies from forcing drivers to drive extremely long hours with few breaks. Instead, these companies should encourage drivers to obtain adequate rest and sleep so that their drivers will be alert and in control while operating tractor-trailer rigs on our highways.
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