Serious and fatal commercial truck accidents occur every day. Although trucking companies and their drivers have dozens of strict federal safety laws to follow, mistakes and accidents still happen. In 2017, 4,657 fatal traffic accidents around the U.S. involved large trucks. Holding someone accountable for a commercial truck accident could result in change on an institutional level. A lawsuit could force a truck company to enhance its safety measures with help of a Dallas truck accident attorney. It could also lead to a compensatory award for injured victims. Identifying the defendant, however, is not always easy.
The Truck Driver
It was more common in the past for injured truck accident victims to hold at-fault truck drivers individually liable for damages. Most truck drivers work as independent contractors, not employees. Under previous federal law, a victim could hold a truck driver individually liable for damages if that driver was negligent, distracted, drunk, careless, reckless or otherwise responsible for causing the truck accident.
Today, however, most trucking companies will be vicariously responsible for their truck drivers, even as independent contractors, if they were on duty at the time of the crash. A truck driver may be independently liable, or liable through his or her own insurance company, if the driver was not on duty at the time of the accident.
The Truck Company
Current law upholds respondent superior, the common law doctrine of agency, in most truck accident claims. This law, also known as vicarious liability, states that responsibility for the acts of a subordinate (e.g. an employee) will go to the superior (e.g. an employer). In other words, a company will be responsible for the actions of its on-duty employees. Although most truck drivers are independent contractors, the trucking company that hired the driver will still be vicariously responsible under federal law if the crash occurred within the driver’s scope of employment. Scope of employment depends on several factors.
- The time and place of the accident
- The type of work the driver was performing at the time
- Acts the employer reasonably expected the driver to perform
- The amount of freedom the employee had at work
- Whether the driver was engaged in a personal activity
In most cases, if a truck driver causes an accident through texting and driving, breaching the hours of service regulations, drunk driving, drowsy driving, speeding, making an unsafe lane change, or through other means, the truck company will be accountable. The truck company could also be responsible for an accident if it caused or contributed to the crash on a company level. Examples include hiring an unsafe truck driver, failing to conduct drug/alcohol tests and inadequately maintaining its trucks.
A Product Manufacturer or Distributor
A trucking accident could come down to product manufacturer liability if a defective or dangerous vehicle part contributed to the crash. Examples include defective brakes, tires, accelerators, ignition switches, seat belts, airbags and steering columns. Most product liability claims do not require proof of negligence for the victim to obtain compensation. It is generally enough to prove that the auto part had a defect and that this is what caused the crash.
Some truck accident claims involve the liability of multiple parties, not just the company or the driver. Other liable parties could include a cargo loading company, the owner of the commercial truck, a property owner or a government entity. If more than one party shares fault for the truck accident, all could be jointly and severally liable for damages. Each party may be equally responsible for paying for all the victim’s damages or only responsible for the portion of damages he or she caused. For example, a truck company could be partially liable for a drowsy driver, but a product manufacturer could share responsibility for defective brakes. A truck accident lawyer can help a victim determine the identity of the defendant(s).