Driving in a congested city like Washington, D.C. could mean tight turns and other hazards that make collisions between cars and trucks more likely
If you've ever driven a car on a highway or interstate, then you've likely experienced that uncomfortable moment when an 18-wheeler (or a "Mac") truck is approaching fast from the rear, and you wonder if it can stop quickly enough if it has to.
Washington, D.C. is unique in several ways — the most obvious is that it's not a state but still has its own laws like a state does. But there's actually very little highway driving that would actually be within the D.C. jurisdictional limits. Even I-495, the Capital Beltway, surrounds the city as it passes through Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland and Fairfax County and the City of Alexandria in Virginia.
Most driving that's subject to D.C. laws is on city streets, which lend themselves to different kinds of truck accidents than you would experience on a fast-moving highway.
But accidents do happen in our nation's capital, and it's important to know the common types of truck accidents and how you can be compensated if you're involved in one.
Common types of truck accidents
Tire blowouts usually happen at high speeds, but not always. An airborne piece of tire can fly faster than you might think, and often an accident happens because the piece of tire hits another vehicle. The flying debris could cause you to lose control of your car or shatter your windshield on impact. Or if it lands in the road, it could require you to make a sudden swerve that could cause an accident with another vehicle.
Rollover accidents are dangerous for truck drivers, other vehicles, and pedestrians or bicyclists. Some rollovers happen because of speeding or an improper maneuver on an exit ramp or turn, but it can also be from poorly weighted (unbalanced) truck cargo.
A car that slides underneath the truck trailer, either from the rear or the side, is an underride accident. This could happen if the car is in the truck's blind spot when the truck changes lanes, but more often is because the truck comes to a sudden stop or slows down and the driver of a nearby car is distracted and doesn't stop quickly enough.
When the cab and the trailer fold at their joint, they "jackknife," which creates a sharp angle. When that happens, the driver loses control of the trailer and there could be a collision or a car could get wedged underneath the truck.
Unsecured load accidents
Trucks need to follow a lot of regulations with respect to how cargo is transported. In general, cargo must be immobile and secure with appropriate restraints based on the weight and type of cargo and the truck.
However, when cargo shifts or becomes unsteady, it can cause a variety of accidents. It could result in a rollover-type accident, a tow-trailer could come loose from the cab or debris (like consumer goods, appliances, etc.) can fall off the truck and into the path of another vehicle.
Remember, not every "truck accident" involves actual contact with the truck — you could suffer an injury because you came into contact with debris or even chemicals that came from the truck.
Hazmat truck accidents
Hazmat (short for "hazardous materials") trucks carry substances that could create a hazard if spilled or leaked.
There are a few reasons why a hazmat truck accident could be more dangerous than other types of truck accidents:
- If a hazmat truck has a spill or leak, it could make the road slippery for other vehicles, which is likely to cause a collision. This is especially dangerous if it happens without warning on a fast-moving highway or interstate as it could result in a multiple-car pileup.
- Transporting a liquid could be more difficult than solid cargo because as the liquid "sloshes" back and forth, it could throw off the truck's center of gravity.
- When a hazardous substance leaks into the air, soil, or water, it could make people nearby sick. Some of these symptoms may not appear immediately, but they could last for years to come.
Causes of truck accidents
Anything can happen at any time, and most accidents are unpredictable. But there are a few factors that raise the likelihood of a wreck.
Here are the most common causes of truck accidents. It's important to remember that many of these causes could be the fault of either the truck driver or the driver of a passenger vehicle:
Driving a truck is a high-pressure, high-stress job. Often, trucking companies will require drivers to deliver goods to a certain destination within a short period of time. That means they're driving long distances with few breaks and little rest.
Sometimes, the number of miles to be driven requires several days on the road at a time and the drivers have too few hours of sleep (and even less quality sleep). As a result, they lose concentration and coordination and are slower to react to road situations — not to mention the dangerous possibility of actually falling asleep while driving.
There are laws and regulations for how many hours a trucker can drive in a shift, how much sleep is required, and when rest breaks must be taken. However, many companies don't follow these rules and driver fatigue remains a big problem in the trucking industry.
We tend to think of distracted driving being texting and using mobile phones behind the wheel (which it is), but there are other types of distractions, too.
Distracted driving is any activity that takes your hands off the wheel, eyes off the road, or mind off the task of driving. This could include eating, reading directions, using navigation devices, or getting distracted by something happening outside your vehicle.
A distracted driving accident could be caused by anyone — a truck driver, car driver, bicyclist, or even a pedestrian who's walking while distracted and not looking where they're going.
Poor training and/or maintenance
Yes, there are regulations on how a driver should be trained and how a truck is to be maintained to ensure that both are ready to be out on the road. But like any industry, sometimes people and companies cut corners and that can lead to accidents.
Driving under the influence of alcohol or other substances
We've talked about how drowsy or fatigued driving can be a big problem for truck drivers. Some truckers use amphetamines or cocaine as stimulants to help stay awake while driving. These drugs — and others — and alcohol can compel a driver to take risks they ordinarily wouldn't. They also make the driver more likely to fall asleep at the wheel when the substances begin to wear off.
Alcohol impairs everyone's ability to drive — you lose judgment, have slower reaction times, and lose other capabilities that are crucial to driving safely.
In Washington, D.C., no driver is permitted to drive if their blood alcohol content (BAC) is .08% or higher. However, a commercial driver may not have a BAC higher than .04%.
Speeding and overtaking
Speeding can always cause an accident, whether it's the truck driver or the driver of a car. The faster you're driving, the less time you have to react and the more likely you are to lose control of the vehicle.
In the case of semi-trucks that are hauling heavy cargo, this further increases the distance they require to stop and avoid a crash and makes speeding even more dangerous.
Cargo load problems
Trucking regulations require that a load must be a specific weight, size, length, width, and height. However, mistakes happen and if a load is too top-heavy, it could cause the truck to tip over. The truck, itself, could hit another car or a load that falls onto the road could cause a catastrophic accident.
Liability for a Washington, D.C. truck accident
In Washington, D.C., the question of who is at fault for an accident is going to be the main deciding factor for whether or not you can receive damages for your injuries.
Usually, you have 2 options for how you can recover damages:
- Make an insurance claim.
- File a lawsuit if the insurance doesn't cover the full extent of your expenses.
How you do those things depends on what state or jurisdiction you were in when the accident happened.
Washington, D.C. no-fault insurance
Washington, D.C. follows a no-fault system, which means an insurance company pays for its own insured's minor injuries, regardless of who was at fault. This is great if you're in a minor fender-bender or rear-end accident and have a small number of medical bills related to the accident. But if you were severely injured in an injury with a truck, that might not cover the full extent of your costs.
After an accident in D.C., you have 60 days in which to elect to use your no-fault option or to file a claim against the at-fault driver. If you choose no-fault, you are not permitted to submit a claim against the driver later.
There are 2 exceptions, however:
- If your medical costs exceed the amount of your own (optional) personal injury coverage, and
- If you suffered a significant impairment.
A "significant impairment" is a permanent impairment, scarring, or disability that lasts 6 months or longer. If you meet these criteria, you may file a claim on your own injury policy and a claim against the at-fault driver's policy.
Washington, D.C. pure contributory negligence law
The District of Columbia also follows a pure contributory negligence standard, which means if the plaintiff shares any degree of fault, they can't recover damages for an accident.
You can make a claim for no-fault medical benefits from your insurance company. Because it's no-fault insurance, your claim should not be denied because of contributory negligence. However, you would not be able to recover damages in a lawsuit because of this negligence standard.
Don't admit fault or liability. Even if you know you were at fault, keep it to yourself. Don't lie, but simply don't talk about the details. Save that conversation for your lawyer. You might be partially responsible, but there might be other factors that you are unaware of at the time that could reduce your liability. It's your lawyer's job to find and highlight these factors. In a D.C. accident, admitting any fault at all could sink your entire case.
The police should do a thorough job of reconstructing the accident. They'll ask you (and witnesses) for a statement, but you don't need to admit fault. Again, don't lie because that will damage your credibility. It's better to say nothing at all than to make statements that might later be shown to be untrue.
Possible defendants in a truck accident lawsuit
In most cases, a car accident lawsuit has 2 parties: the plaintiff (the injured person) and the defendant (the person who caused the accident). Usually, the person who caused the accident is 1 of the involved drivers, but it could be another entity—for instance, if the accident was caused by faulty road conditions or another external factor. However, that's less common.
But when the accident involves a truck, things quickly get much more complicated and here's why:
There are 3 types of truck drivers:
- Owner-operators. These people own the trucks they drive and either lease to a trucking company or are independent contractors. If they lease to a trucking company, it means that they have a contract to haul freight for that company using their own trucks. If they're independent contractors, they likely haul loads for several companies.
- Company drivers. A company driver is employed by a specific trucking company and drives only that company's trucks.
- Independent owner-operators. These drivers drive their own trucks to haul their goods, and they might own a small fleet.
The responsible party will depend on who manages the truck, which could be the driver. However, it could also be the fault of the person who loaded the cargo (who isn't necessarily the driver), the trucking company, or even the manufacturer of a specific part of the truck that caused the wreck.
Sometimes, truck accidents happen because of a defective part (for example, faulty brakes or steering), and that's neither the fault of the driver nor the company, provided it did the appropriate maintenance. If that happens, it could be the part manufacturer who's to blame.
Damages for a truck accident
If you were injured in a truck crash, you may be able to recover damages for these losses:
- Medical expenses, including diagnostic testing (like MRI, CT scans, ultrasounds, or bloodwork), prescription medications, hospital and doctor visits and other treatment
- Lost wages, both past and future, including long-term disabilities
- Lost earning potential
- Property and vehicle damage or replacement
- Pain and suffering
- Wrongful death, if you're a survivor of a family member who died in a fatal truck accident
Truck accident statute of limitations
Usually, you have 3 years from the date of the accident to file a personal injury lawsuit in D.C.. If you're making an insurance claim, you should do that as soon as possible after the accident because you could lose the ability to make an insurance claim if you don't do so quickly.
What to do after a D.C. truck accident
First, if you're involved in an accident, see if anyone is badly injured and call for help (9-1-1). Help the responding officer fill out their police report, even if no one is injured because that's going to be an important piece of evidence for your claim.
Here are 4 tips for how to handle a truck accident:
- Seek medical attention. It's important to visit an urgent care, emergency room or hospital right away to get a full assessment of your physical condition, even if you don't feel like you're injured. That way, if symptoms appear in the days or weeks following an accident, you're able to show that the accident was what caused the injuries.
- Gather evidence at the scene. The police report will contain a lot of factual information, but there could be details they miss. Try to take pictures and notes of weather conditions, road conditions, signs or signals, or other factors that could be important.
- Obtain contact information from witnesses. The police should do this as part of their reporting, but an accident scene can be chaotic and the police might be more involved in helping people who are injured, redirecting traffic around the accident, or cleaning up the area. Before a witness leaves the scene, get their name and phone number. It might help you later.
- Let your lawyer communicate with the insurance company and any of the parties involved. In other words, don't talk with the insurance company. An experienced truck accident lawyer is the best person to manage this communication in order to keep your liability as minimal as possible.
Trucking companies are large corporations with deep pockets and extensive and aggressive legal teams. They want to do 2 things: Make your claim "go away" and spend as little money as possible to do it. They're not going to offer a generous settlement to compensate you for your injuries, even if they were at fault. They're also going to know every inch of the law and will find ways to make you seem liable, even if that's not entirely true.
A personal injury lawyer helps individuals who have sustained injuries in accidents to recover financial compensation. These funds are often needed to pay for medical treatment, make up for lost wages and provide compensation for injuries suffered. Sometimes a case that seems simple at first may become more complicated. In these cases, consider hiring an experienced personal injury lawyer. Read more