A plaintiff's guide to determining liability after a truck accident in the Garden State
New Jersey is a thoroughfare for interstate commerce, a manufacturing hub, and home to nearly 9 million people.
While the state is geographically small (fewer than 8,800 square miles), it's the most densely populated in the nation. Jersey City, Newark, and New York City are notorious for their traffic and long commute times. For each of these cities, the average commute time for all commuters was more than 35 minutes, which means they spend about 133 hours per year in traffic. New York City is included because so many New Jersey residents commute into the City on a regular basis.
While many of these commuters take public transportation, there are also plenty who drive — and more time on the road means more opportunity to be involved in a crash. As a manufacturing hub, New Jersey roads are also populated by many semi-trucks and tractor trailers, which means truck accidents are common in the Garden State.
New Jersey truck accident statistics
There were 32 tractor-trailer crashes and 35 truck accident fatalities in New Jersey in 2018. The following charts are based on data compiled by the New Jersey State Police Fatal Accident Investigation Unit:
Other contributing factors that commonly causes truck wrecks, based on New Jersey law enforcement data, include:
- Unsafe speed
- Improper lane change
- Improper passing
- Failure to keep right
- Road/environmental factors
- Pedestrian violation
How is a truck accident different from a car accident?
It's important to protect your legal rights if you're involved in a truck accident.
Most of us have been in a car accident at some time in our lives (maybe more than 1). You probably know the drill — exchange information with the other driver (or drivers), call your insurance company, and take it from there. If it's clear which driver was at fault for the accident, the insurance companies can often handle things on their own.
But a truck accident is more complicated.
Even if you're certain that the accident was the result of the truck driver's action (that is, not your fault), it's still not clear-cut as to who is liable.
The premise of personal injury law is that a plaintiff (the injured party) should be made whole (compensated) for their injuries if they were the result of a defendant's negligence. "Made whole" means that the plaintiff is restored to the financial condition they'd have been in if the accident hadn't happened.
Liability is a legal word for fault. New Jersey is a no-fault state, which means your accident damages are typically paid by your own insurance policy, regardless of whether you were or another driver was at fault.
However, your truck accident might leave you with injuries that are greater than what your own insurance will cover. New Jersey allows for a lawsuit to cover expenses outside Personal Injury Protection (PIP)/no-fault insurance for accidents that result in serious injuries such as:
- Loss of body part
- Loss of fetus
- Permanent injury (affected body part isn't expected to recover to previous function)
- Displaced fracture
- Significant disfigurement or scarring
Determining liability for your truck accident injuries
If your insurance doesn't cover the extent of your injuries, knowing who was liable will be crucial to your case. In a truck accident, there can be a number of potential defendants:
- Truck driver. While this might seem most obvious, even if the driver made an error, it's not always the driver's fault. Sometimes the trucking company (employer) bears the liability for the actions of its employees.
- Trucking company. There are several ways the company could be liable for an accident. The contracts between the trucking company and the shipper or manufacturer, and between the trucking company and the driver (many drivers are independent contractors or subcontractors), can determine who's liable for an accident. The company could also be liable if the accident was caused by a truck that wasn't properly inspected or loaded, or if the trucking company violated strict federal standards for how many hours a driver may work in a shift or how long they have to sleep in between.
- Parts manufacturer. Your car was probably manufactured in a plant that's owned and operated by a specific manufacturer. A truck, on the other hand, might be made from parts made by a number of different manufacturers. If the accident was caused by a faulty bearing, a defective cargo restraint, defective brake system, or any other way that's related to defective parts, it could be the manufacturer that's ultimately at fault.
- Shipper/distributor. Some shippers use their own trucks to transport goods. Others contract with a trucking company, but the shipper would still load cargo before the trip. Some truck accidents are caused because cargo is loaded improperly, there's too much weight, or for other cargo-related reasons.
You probably won't be able to figure out who's liable for your truck accident on your own. A lawyer will employ the discovery process to obtain access to contracts, business plans, and other documents to show what parties are liable for the accident. Your lawyer will also know the regulations and laws that trucking companies must follow in order to determine whether the rules were broken.
What to do after a truck accident in New Jersey
Statistics can give you an idea about the frequency of truck accidents, but they don't tell you what to do if it happens to you. Any vehicle accident can be devastating, and plenty of "regular" car accidents result in serious or fatal injuries. But a truck accident is often more severe than a car accident because of the sheer size of the truck compared to a passenger car.
If you drive an average-sized car, it probably weighs around 4,000 pounds. A "big rig" tractor trailer or semi-truck might weigh more than 30,000 pounds. In addition to the weight difference, the center of gravity for a large truck is far higher than a passenger car, which means the truck and its driver are likely to fare much better in a crash than the car occupants.
These tips for what to do after a car accident depend on how severely you're injured. If you can't get out of the car, walk, move, or believe you have other injuries, stay put until help arrives.
If you are able to do so safely and without further injuring yourself, here are 6 post-truck accident tips:
- Seek medical help immediately. Some injuries don't show symptoms for days or weeks after a crash. If you wait to see a doctor and an injury appears later, it can be hard to prove that the injury was the result of the accident. Even if you think you're fine, visit a doctor, urgent care facility or hospital immediately to have a thorough medical examination. Tell the provider you've been in an accident so any issues are clearly documented.
- Look for evidence at the scene. When police or first responders arrive, their first priority is to make sure that victims are getting the medical attention they need. Second, they must clear the scene so the flow of traffic can continue. Finally, they will gather evidence to include in a police report or other investigative documents. Usually, the best evidence can be found immediately after an accident.Look for some of these factors that might provide clues about how the accident happened:
Enjuris tip: A photo can be worth a thousand words, as they say. Here are some tips for how to take photos of the accident scene after a crash.
- Weather conditions
- Traffic signals
- Position of vehicles after the crash
- Damage to vehicles or other property or debris on the road
- Evidence that a driver is drunk or otherwise under the influence
- Obtain witnesses' contact information. If there are witnesses, the police should include them in the official report. But sometimes, a well-meaning bystander or good samaritan will wait at the scene until first responders arrive and then leave, thinking that the professionals have it under control. That's why if you see witnesses who might have observed how the accident happened, it's important to take their contact information before they leave. Get a name, phone number, and email address for each witness at the scene.
- Report the accident to your insurance company, but let your lawyer take it from there. It's important to notify your insurance company immediately after an accident. Some insurance companies require a report within a specific amount of time and if you miss it, you could lose the ability to file a claim. But you don't need to tell the insurance company exactly what happened if it could leave you with liability. Your truck accident lawyer should manage any communication after the initial report in order to minimize your liability and preserve your claim.
- Contact a truck accident lawyer. The sooner, the better. Your lawyer will want to act fast to secure accident reconstruction experts and investigate other evidence that can build a case for liability. Your lawyer is a trained negotiator and understands the laws and regulations for the trucking industry, in addition to the nuances of insurance settlements (and knows the tricks the insurance companies use to try to lowball your settlement). Find the lawyer who's best equipped and able to handle your claim.
- Refer contact from the trucking company's insurer to your lawyer. You're not obligated to speak with the trucking company's lawyers or insurance company. Remember that the trucking company likely has a team of lawyers who are handling a variety of cases every single day. It also has deep pockets and wants to settle the claims to make them disappear, but they also will try to settle for the lowest possible amount.
Enjuris tip: Many of us are accustomed to sharing details about our lives on social media. If you've been in a truck wreck or any other kind of accident, don't do this. You might think you're reassuring your friends and family that you're okay and letting them know what happened, but save this for private conversations.
Even a seemingly innocent comment like, "Don't worry, I'm fine!" can have serious implications in court. If you're "fine," the court might find that you don't need any damages or that your condition is less severe than your claim describes. It's always wise to avoid posting on social media if you're involved in a legal claim.
Workers' compensation claims after a New Jersey truck accident
Workers' compensation is available to most New Jersey residents who are injured in a truck accident, whether you're a truck driver or someone in a passenger car who drives for your job.
Generally, workers' compensation covers:
- Medical treatment like doctor or hospital visits or procedures, surgery, diagnostic testing, prescription medication, assistive devices, ongoing therapies, and other costs related to the accident injuries.
- Lost wages, including past, present, and future earnings.
- Death benefits for dependent family members of an employee who dies in a truck accident.
What doesn't workers' compensation cover?
If you were injured in a truck accident while performing duties for work, you should consult a workers' compensation lawyer in order to file a claim.
Most common types of truck accidents
While there's no limit on ways a truck accident could happen, these are some of the most common types we see on New Jersey interstates, highways and roads:
Underride truck accidents
A passenger car can slide underneath a truck, either from the rear or the side. The height difference in the vehicles could mean that the top or front of the car could be crushed and its occupants seriously injured. This is an especially deadly type of truck accident.
Jackknife truck accidents
A "jackknife" is when the cab and trailer portions of a big rig fold at the joint. If the back of the trailer moves faster than the cab, it creates a sharp angle that causes the truck to face 2 directions. If this happens, the driver no longer has control over the vehicle. A nearby car could collide with the swinging trailer or wedge underneath the rear of the truck.
Hazmat truck accidents
"Hazmat" stands for hazardous materials. This classification could include anything from gasoline, to pesticides, to lithium batteries, to dry ice. What classifies cargo as hazardous is if it's either highly flammable or could become harmful to breathe if it becomes airborne.
A hazmat accident can affect not just the drivers on the road, but also anyone in surrounding areas. If a toxic substance is released into the air or certain bodies of water, it can affect people in nearby communities.
Unsecured load accidents
There are many federal regulations for loading cargo, and the main consideration is that the haul must be immobile and secure. The truck's restraint system must be strong enough to keep cargo from sliding or shifting.
There are 2 ways an unsecured load accident could happen:
- If the truck is involved in an accident and the load isn't secured properly, it can create additional hazard because the impact could cause the cargo to slide into oncoming traffic, or onto the road.
- The other possibility is that the instability of the loadcan cause a rollover if the truck's center of gravity is thrown off or the movement causes the truck to move unpredictably.
Tire blowout accidents
Both cars and trucks can have tire blowouts. When that happens, it can cause the vehicle to swerve into another lane, roll over, or (in the case of semi trucks) jackknife. A tire blowout is usually caused by wear and tear, defective manufacturing, or lack of routine maintenance. If a truck tire blows out, the debris from the broken tire could hit other cars, or the truck could collide with other cars if it swerves out of its lane.
Causes of truck accidents and how to prevent them
Sometimes, accidents truly are... accidents. But many truck accidents are caused by driver error, either on the part of the truck driver or a passenger car driver (or both).
Here are 5 ways that driver error can result in truck accidents:
- Distracted driving. Distracted driving isn't just an issue for truck drivers. It's a huge problem for everyone — including teens and adult drivers. And it's not just about texting and driving. Distraction can be anything from eating, to flipping radio channels, to simply getting lost in your thoughts and losing concentration on a long and boring strip of highway. Taking your eyes, hands, or mind off the task of driving, even for a split second, can result in disaster.
- Alcohol and drug use. Nearly a third of truck drivers admitted to using amphetamines on the job, according to a Reuters Health study. Another 20% admitted to using marijuana, and 3% used cocaine. Often, it's appealing to a truck driver to use amphetamines or cocaine in order to stimulate themselves to stay awake while driving. The hazard is that these drugs also compel drivers to take unnecessary risks (like speeding). Also, the drugs' effects wear off quickly, which makes it more likely for a driver to fall asleep at the wheel.
- Speeding. Drivers are under constant pressure to make tight deadlines. A driver might be at risk of losing their job if they can't deliver a load on time, and that might mean they're going to speed to get there. For an 18-wheeler traveling 55 miles per hour on dry pavement, it can take 390 feet (or 4 seconds) to come to a stop. That might not sound like much, but if you're in a small car in front of a big truck and you need to come to a sudden stop, then you could be at risk if the driver can't stop the truck fast enough.
- Driver fatigue. There are laws and regulations about how many hours a truck driver is allowed behind the wheel per shift, and how many hours of sleep are required in between shifts. Unfortunately, many trucking companies don't follow the rules. Sometimes, the drivers want to make better time, so they choose to cut corners on the amount of sleep they get. This results in drivers who fall asleep at the wheel, or who lose concentration or coordination and are slow to react to a traffic situation.
- Failure to leave enough space between vehicles. The most effective form of prevention is to leave plenty of room to make sudden stops or other maneuvers, and to avoid traveling alongside a truck or in the driver's blind spot. The general rule of thumb is if you can't see their mirrors, they can't see you. Certainly, you need to pass a truck from time to time. But try to wait until you're sure there's enough room to pass quickly without having to linger in the lane directly adjacent to the truck.
How to recover damages after a truck accident
If your truck accident injuries are serious, it's important to call a lawyer as soon as possible.
Damages after a truck accident include:
- Medical expenses, including doctor and hospital visits, surgeries, outpatient procedures, prescription medications, etc.
- Costs for adaptive devices
- Ongoing treatment like physical or occupational therapy
- Lost wages (past and future)
- Costs for property damage (like repair or replacement of your vehicle)
- Compensation for assistance with daily activities (like child care, personal aide, etc.)
- Pain and suffering, for PTSD and other emotional distress caused by the crash
- Funeral and burial expenses, if the crash resulted in the death of your loved one
A qualified lawyer can help maximize your recovery by working with accountants, actuaries, and medical experts to ensure that your future expenses are covered to the greatest extent possible. To find a New Jersey truck accident lawyer, feel free to use the Enjuris law firm directory — it's thorough, free, and a great resource to get you on your way to financial recovery.
You can also find everything you need to know about truck accidents in our free, downloadable Truck Accident Guide — complete with FAQs, printable forms, and information on a variety of truck accident-related topics.
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