What to Do After a California Truck Accident

A truck accident is treated differently from a collision with a passenger car, and your lawyer is the best person to navigate the legal landscape.

Did you know that even if the truck driver's error causes an accident, they might not be the liable party? Sometimes the trucking company is at fault, or even the manufacturer of the truck's parts. Here's how to break down truck accident liability and what you should do after a crash.

Nearly everyone who drives or rides in a passenger car will be involved in a car accident at some point in their life. Fortunately, the majority of car accidents are minor — fender benders, rear-end accidents, sideswipe collisions — and they don't result in serious injury or fatality.

But everything can change when you're involved in a truck accident.

A truck accident is more likely than a car accident to result in serious or fatal injury. A semi-truck is about 20 times heavier than most passenger cars. Impact with a truck will likely have a bigger effect on the occupants of the car than the truck.

Facing factsThere are about 6 million car accidents each year in the U.S., and 3 million people are injured as a result.
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California truck accident statistics

Highway 99, which runs north-south through California's Central Valley, has been called the most dangerous road in the U.S. The stretch of highway through Fresno is the deadliest section with dozens of fatal accidents each year, earning it the ranking of the most deadly 100 miles of any highway nationwide.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) reported 361 fatalities in California truck accidents in 2017. There were 87 fatal crashes involving only the truck and no other vehicles, and 233 crashes that involved other vehicles.

The good news is that many truck accidents are preventable. Knowing how they happen can help you to avoid a collision.

Types of truck accidents

There's no playbook for an accident. It can happen at any time, under any circumstances, and each is different. But there are some types of truck accidents that are common and important to look out for.

Tire blowout truck accidents

When a truck has a tire blowout, it could cause the vehicle to swerve into another lane, roll over, or jackknife. Often, a tire blowout is caused by wear and tear on tires, defective manufacturing, or routine maintenance deficiencies.

This is dangerous to cars on the highway because your vehicle could be hit with flying tire debris or collide with the truck if it swerves out of its lane.

The best way to protect yourself from being involved in a tire blowout accident is to keep as much space as possible between your car and a truck on the road. When you need to pass a truck, make sure you have plenty of space ahead of the truck so you can pass quickly and not ride alongside the truck for any longer than necessary.

Jackknife accidents

"Jackknifing" is when the cab and the trailer of a big rig or 18-wheeler fold at their joint. When something causes the back of the trailer to swing forward or move forward faster than the cab, it creates a sharp angle and the truck is then facing 2 directions.

At that point, the truck driver has lost control of the vehicle. This is dangerous for nearby cars because they could collide with the swinging trailer or wedge underneath as an underride.

Jackknifing is one of the most common truck accidents. It could be caused by:

  • Equipment malfunction
  • Locked wheels
  • Brake failure
  • Speeding
  • Weather conditions
  • Loose cargo
  • Debris
  • Incorrect maneuvering

Rollover truck accidents

A "rollover" is exactly what it sounds like — it's when a truck rolls to one side as a result of:

  • Speeding
  • Sudden maneuvers
  • Improper cargo loading
  • Dangerous or slippery roads
  • Failure to perform proper maintenance
  • Driver error

Underride truck accidents

An underride accident occurs when a passenger car collides with a truck by sliding underneath the truck, either from the rear or along the side. The height difference between a truck and most cars means that a car can slip beneath a truck, which could crush the top and front of a car and leave occupants seriously injured.

Although many trucks are equipped with underride guards (metal barriers designed to prevent a car from sliding underneath), these guards are often not strong enough to withstand impact.

Unsecured load accidents

The trucking industry is subject to a variety of federal regulations for loading cargo. The key to cargo hauling is that it must be firmly immobile and secure. A truck's restraints must be appropriate for the weight and type of cargo being transported.

An unsecured load can contribute to these common accidents:

  • Jackknife accidents, where a heavy load prevents the truck driver from braking efficiently. The trailer can swing around and face the opposite direction from the cab.
  • Rollover accidents, which can happen when loose cargo shifts during a turn. This can alter the truck's equilibrium or center of gravity and cause the truck to overturn.
  • Cargo spills, which can be dangerous whether or not the cargo is inherently hazardous. Any debris on the road is dangerous, whether it's a liquid like milk that makes the road slippery, or obstructions that drivers need to swerve around with little warning.

Hazmat truck accidents

A hazmat truck is one that carries hazardous material — it could be anything from gasoline, explosives, motor oil, activated charcoal, pesticides, infectious biological substances, radioactive material, and lithium batteries, to dry ice.

Enjuris tip: Read more about the categories of hazmat cargo: Hazmat truck accident lawsuits & your legal rights.

The danger of a hazmat truck accident depends on the type of cargo. Some materials are deemed hazardous because they're flammable and there's a risk of explosion or fire. In other situations, it could be a substance that's harmful when airborne because it's dangerous to breathe.

In a situation where the hazard becomes airborne or causes a fire, an injury can happen even without a collision. In fact, a person can be injured from a hazmat truck accident even if they aren't on the roadway. If an accident causes noxious vapors to be released into the air, for example, residents in nearby neighborhoods could be affected.

Who's at fault in a California truck accident?

This might be the most complicated question of them all.

If you're in a car accident, it's usually clear who's involved, even if it's not immediately obvious who was at fault. In most cases, the only people involved are the 2 drivers (maybe more if it's a multiple-car accident), any injured passengers, and the drivers' insurance companies. It's not that straightforward in a truck accident.

Is it the truck driver's fault?

If you're involved in a truck accident, there are more variables to think about. The truck driver might not be liable, at all, even if it was the trucking that caused the accident.

There are 3 categories of truck drivers:

  1. Owner/operators: These drivers own their trucks and lease them to trucking companies or operate as an independent contractor. They might haul loads under contract to various companies.
  2. Company drivers: These drivers are employees of a specific trucking company and drive company-owned trucks.
  3. Independent owner-operators: These are drivers who use their own trucks to haul goods that they produce.

Often, truck accidents are caused by poor vehicle maintenance or incorrect cargo loading. If the accident is the result of either of these, liability could lie with the trucking company and not the driver.

There's also the possibility that the accident was caused by a defect within the truck itself, or one of its parts. Your car contains parts that likely come from a variety of manufacturers, but the car has a single manufacturer that's ultimately responsible for ensuring that it's safe and working properly when it goes to market.

A truck, on the other hand, can be made up of components that are built by several manufacturers. The brakes and other mechanical parts could have a different manufacturer than the restraints that hold a load, for example. You could be looking at a product liability lawsuit in a truck accident, which is a claim against a manufacturer of a defective part.

How do you know who’s liable?

The answers to many questions of liability in a truck accident will lie within the contracts between truck drivers and their employers, trucking companies and the product manufacturers whose loads they're hauling, maintenance companies and trucking companies, and others.

You won't know for sure who's at fault.

It could be whoever was responsible for loading the cargo (which might not be the driver), or whoever was in charge of doing routine inspections before the truck left its last stop. It could be the driver if the crash was caused by driver error. Even if that's the case, sometimes liability comes back on the trucking company because errors can happen if drivers are expected to drive more consecutive hours without breaks than federal regulations allow.

That's why your first call after 911 should be to a truck accident lawyer. Your lawyer will know the federal regulations for trucking, and can assess whether the truck in your accident was in violation.

Your lawyer will also conduct discovery as part of the legal process, which means gathering evidence and documents from the parties that will help to establish liability. They'll obtain the relevant contracts, maintenance reports, and other items that will provide insight for who was really at fault for the accident.

Dealing with insurance companies after a truck accident

Since there could be several parties with liability in a truck accident, there will also be several insurance companies involved.

A large trucking company has deep pockets, big insurance companies, and a team of lawyers at its disposal. It's also accustomed to processing truck accident claims every day because they're so common. That means your claim is literally 1 in a hundred... thousand... that a claims adjuster might be processing at any given time.

The insurance company has 2 main objectives:

  1. To settle fast, and
  2. To settle for as little money as possible.

What does this mean for you?

It means that even your own insurance company might be no match for handling a truck accident claim. Your insurance company is required to investigate any claim and try to establish liability, but it likely doesn't have the resources that the trucking company's insurer uses.

The trucking company's insurer might even try to turn liability back on YOU and claim that you caused the accident.

A truck accident lawyer knows all this, and it's their job to protect your interests.

What to do after a California truck accident

There are a few steps to handling a California truck accident.

Immediately after an accident, call for emergency medical assistance for anyone who's gravely injured.

Enjuris tip: California law requires that anyone on the scene of an accident is responsible for providing "reasonable assistance" to an injured person. That includes taking an injured person to a hospital or doctor if they can't go by ambulance or on their own. [California Vehicle Code § 20003 (a)]

Your legal duty after an accident

You're required by California law to stop at the scene if you were involved in a collision. If you leave without taking the necessary information, it's considered a hit and run.

You must provide the following information to any other involved drivers:

  • Your name (or the car owner's name if you're not the owner)
  • Your car registration number
  • Your driver's license number (if you're asked)

If anyone was injured, you're required to notify the California Highway Patrol or local police within 24 hours after the accident. You must also file a report with the California Department of Motor Vehicles if there were injuries, fatalities, or any property damage worth more than $1,000.

Gathering information at the scene

If you're involved in a regular car accident, you probably only need the other driver's name, license plate number, insurance, and driver's license number in order to move forward.

But in a truck accident, you should make sure that you can locate and identify all parties. That means writing down the truck driver's name, address, and other contact information, as well as the truck's license plate number, insurance policy number, and any other identifying information for the trucking company.

Preserving evidence

The best way to preserve truck accident evidence is to get a police report. But you can do some of your own reporting, too. Taking photos at the scene is a valuable way to share evidence in court. If you're able to safely do so, take pictures of damage to vehicles, weather or road conditions, or other factors that could have affected the crash.

Witnesses are also important. If other drivers have stopped at the scene, either to help or because traffic is blocked, ask for their names and contact information if you can. Their account of what happened could be a key factor in proving your version of events.

Get a medical evaluation

Even if you feel that you're okay, go to a doctor right away.

There are injuries that might not show symptoms immediately, and if you do have pain or other issues in a few days or weeks, it could be hard to prove that it's the result of the accident.

Medical documentation of your physical and mental condition immediately following an accident is an important part of the legal process. If you don't think you need to visit an emergency room or hospital, go to your regular physician or an urgent care provider.

Find a California truck accident lawyer

As we've discussed, a truck accident is complicated. Especially if you're suffering from severe injuries, you need to make sure that your expenses are going to be covered. Insurance, alone, might not cover all of your expenses, including pain and suffering.

You need a California truck accident lawyer who will dig deep into the evidence, figure out who's responsible, and use the court system in the way it's intended — to get you the money you need to move forward.

We invite you to visit the free Enjuris directory of California personal injury lawyers to begin your search for a qualified, experienced, and compassionate truck accident attorney. You don't have to go through the process alone.

More about truck accidents:

Accident Report Form
Sample post-accident report form to keep in your glove box - fill out at the scene or as soon as you can after a car accident
Download in PDF format

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