A guide to commercial truck accidents and how they differ from car accidents
The landscape and weather in Montana make it a particularly dangerous place for drivers of large commercial trucks. One report found that 29% of Montana's major roads were in poor condition and 37% were in mediocre or fair condition.
What's more, Montana winters bring lots of snow and ice, elements that cause problems for large trucks that can't stop or turn as easily as other vehicles.
If you're involved in a large-truck accident in Montana, you'll face questions that you might not face after a car accident. For example, is the truck driver liable for the accident or is the truck driver's employer liable? Were there specific laws the truck driver should have been following?
This article is intended to answer these questions and more.
What vehicles are considered "trucks"?
In Montana, a "truck" is defined as any motor vehicle used or maintained primarily for the transportation of property.
In some cases, the specific characteristics of the truck (such as the weight of the cargo or the items being transported) determine whether a particular law applies. But, generally speaking, when people refer to a "truck accident," they're referring to a crash involving a large commercial vehicle. This includes the following:
- Delivery truck
- Oil and gas truck
- Big rig
- Tractor trailer
- Box truck
- Dump truck
- Tow truck
- Refrigerated truck
Statistics and causes of truck accidents
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the number of people killed in crashes involving large trucks (defined as trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 10,000 pounds) increased from 4,369 in 2016 to 4,761 in 2017.
Of the fatalities in 2017:
- 3,450 (72%) were occupants of other vehicles
- 841 (18%) were occupants of large trucks
- 470 (10%) were nonoccupants (pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.)
In Montana, 20 people were killed in crashes involving large-truck in 2017. Of the 20 fatalities:
- 18 (90%) were occupants of other vehicles
- 2 (10%) were occupants of large trucks
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) investigated the actions that lead to large-truck accidents across the country and found that they could generally be broken down as follows (in order of most to least common):
- Decision (38%): The driver was driving too fast for conditions, misjudged the speed of other vehicles, or followed other vehicles too closely.
- Recognition (28%): The driver was inattentive, was distracted by something inside or outside the vehicle, or failed to observe the situation adequately for some other reason.
- Non-performance (12%): The driver fell asleep, was disabled by a heart attack or seizure, or was physically impaired for another reason.
- Vehicle (10%): Vehicle failures, such as brake problems.
- Performance (9%): The driver panicked, overcompensated, or exercised poor directional control.
- Environment (3%): Fog, heavy rain, bad weather or roadway problems.
Train accident injuries and damages
Trucks can legally weigh up to 80,000 pounds (40 tons). This is roughly 7 times heavier than a tyrannosaurus rex!
Due to the massive size of commercial trucks, injuries are often very serious. Common large-truck accident injuries include:
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Internal injuries
- Spinal cord injuries
Montana awards both economic damages and non-economic damages in truck accident cases. Economic damages refer to monetary losses resulting from an accident (such as medical expenses and lost wages). Non-economic damages refer to losses that don't have a clear dollar value (such as pain and suffering).
In addition, Montana awards punitive damages in cases where the defendant acted with actual malice. For example, punitive damages may be awarded if the truck driver who caused the accident was driving while intoxicated.
However, under Montana law, public entities and employees are immune from punitive damages. Moreover, public entities and public employees can't be held liable for any amount greater than $750,000 for each claim and $1.5 million for each occurrence.
So if, for instance, you're rear-ended by a dump truck that is owned and operated by the Missoula Public Works Department, punitive damages wouldn't be available. Economic and non-economic damages would still be available, but would be capped.
Laws governing truck accidents
When it comes to truck accidents, both federal and state laws play a role.
Federal laws govern the trucking industry and establish certain standards that trucking companies and drivers must meet. These regulations can be found in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The regulations are extensive, but here's a sampling:
- All vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of 26,000 pounds or more must stop at all weigh stations
- Commercial motor vehicle drivers must not work more than a certain number of hours consecutively
|Hours of Service Limitations for Commercial
Motor Vehicle Drivers
|Work||Property-Carrying Vehicles||Passenger-Carrying Vehicles|
|On-Duty||Maximum 14 consecutive hours on-duty following 10 consecutive hours off-duty||Maximum 15 hours on-duty following 8 consecutive hours off-duty|
|Driving Time||Maximum 11 hours of driving during the 14 hour on-duty period||Maximum 10 hours of driving following 8 consecutive hours off-duty|
|Weekly||Maximum 60 hours on-duty in any period of 7 consecutive days (if vehicle operates every day) or maximum 70 hours on-duty in any period of 8 consecutive days (if vehicle doesn't operate every day)||Maximum 60 hours on-duty in any period of 7 consecutive days (if vehicle operates every day) or maximum 70 hours on-duty in any period of 8 consecutive days (if vehicle doesn't operate every day)|
In addition to the federal laws that must be followed, Montana has its own laws governing the trucking industry. These laws can be found in Title 61 of the Montana Code Annotated and Chapter 18.8 of the Administrative Rules of Montana.
Here's a sampling of some of the Montana laws:
- All commercial motor vehicle drivers need to have a valid medical certificate
- The tow truck equipment of a commercial tow truck operator must undergo an annual safety inspection
- Trucks must travel below certain speeds
|Montana Truck Speed Limits|
|Vehicle Type and Condition||Day||Night|
|Truck or truck tractor with a manufacturer’s rated capacity of 1 ton||On federal-aid interstate highways||65 MPH||65 MPH|
|On other public highways||60 MPH||55 MPH|
Determining fault in Montana truck accidents
After an accident, the insurance companies and personal injury lawyers will attempt to determine who's at fault for the accident.
In truck accident cases, determining who's at fault usually means determining who was negligent. Often this is the truck driver, but not always. Others that could be at fault for a truck accident include:
- The trucking company. The trucking company may be found at fault (or partially at fault) if they violated one of the federal or state laws (such as requiring the truck driver to drive a load larger or for a longer period than permitted) or if they are guilty of a negligent hiring (for example, if a company hires a driver with a history of distracted driving accidents, the company may be responsible for a subsequent crash).
- The cargo company. One common cause of truck accidents is overloaded or improperly loaded cargo. In these situations, the cargo company may be at fault.
- The manufacturer. Truck accidents may be caused by a defective vehicle (such as an improperly designed trailer hitch that causes the trailer to come loose). In these situations, the manufacturer of the defective product might be at fault.
It's possible that the trucking company will be held liable for the negligence of the truck driver under the theory of respondeat superior. "Respondeat superior" is a legal theory that holds a company responsible for a traffic accident caused by a truck-driver so long as the truck driver is an employee and was acting within the scope of their employment.
In the past, trucking companies often escaped liability by contracting employees (in other words, using "independent contractors" rather than "employees"). Federal regulations have cracked down on these practices however, and now independent contractors are considered "employees" for the purposes of the commercial trucking industry.
Sometimes, both the truck driver (or other party associated with the truck) and the motorist involved in the collision are at fault. So what happens then?
Montana is a modified comparative fault state. This means that the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover will be reduced by the percentage that reflects the plaintiff's degree of fault so long as the plaintiff's percentage of fault is less than 51%.
If the plaintiffs percentage of fault is 51% or more, the plaintiff is completely barred from recovering any damages from the defendant.
Injured while driving a truck for work in Montana?
In lieu of filing a personal injury lawsuit, truck drivers who are injured in an accident during the course of their employment have the option of filing a workers' compensation claim.
Workers' compensation is a form of insurance that pays medical expenses and lost wages to employees who are injured while doing their job.
In Montana, workers' compensation is a "no-fault" insurance system. This means that valid claims are paid regardless of who's to blame for the accident. Montana workers' compensation pays medical expenses, wage loss benefits, and death benefits for certain dependents.
Use our free online attorney directory to locate a personal injury or workers' compensation attorney in Montana who has experience in truck-accident litigation.
Need a lawyer?
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