A truck accident can be devastating — physically, emotionally, and financially.
We've all had that moment on the highway of noticing a semi-truck or tractor-trailer bearing down from the rear and had that "yikes" instinct.
While not every close encounter with an 18-wheeler becomes an accident (thankfully), some truck accidents can be devastating. In North Carolina, there were 177 fatalities in accidents that involved large trucks in 2018.
|Type of truck
|Unknown heavy truck
How truck accidents differ from car crashes
There are a few important distinctions between a truck accident and a collision between passenger cars.
The first major difference between a truck accident and a car accident is likely severity. Certainly, a collision between passenger cars can be very serious or deadly. But a semi-truck weighs about 20 times heavier than the average passenger car, which means impact with a truck will usually have a stronger effect on the smaller vehicle's occupants.
The second main distinction is how liability is handled. In a car accident, liability usually rests squarely on one or both of the drivers. In a truck accident, there are several parties who might be liable or jointly liable in a lawsuit — including the trucking company, the truck owner, a cargo loading company, etc.
One thing is certain, regardless of how or why (or with whom) your accident happened:
The basis for personal injury law is that a plaintiff (the injured person) can recover damages (costs) from an accident if the defendant (liable party) was negligent, that negligence caused the accident, and the accident cost the plaintiff money.
Establishing liability in a North Carolina truck accident
Say you're in an accident where a semi-truck rolls over on the highway.
- Was it because the driver changed lanes too fast?
- Was it because the cargo was loaded incorrectly and altered the truck's center of gravity?
- Was it because the mechanism that attaches the cab to the trailer failed and became loose?
It could be any (or none) of these reasons. But your legal claim could be very different depending on which reason it is — and you likely won't know right away.
It's important to understand that there are 3 types of truck drivers:
- Owner-operators, who own the trucks they drive and either function as independent contractors (contracting with shippers for delivery services) or they lease vehicles to a trucking company.
- Company drivers, who are employees of a trucking company and only drive that company's trucks.
- Independent owner-operators, who drive their own trucks to haul goods from their own company.
Which type of truck driver is responsible for the crash is important from a legal perspective. Your lawyer can sort out important details such as how the driver is employed and who's responsible for the truck's maintenance.
Vehicle maintenance could also be a factor
The person or company that owns or leases any vehicle is responsible for its maintenance. If there's a contract between the owner and shipper, there probably are provisions in the contract that address maintenance. Even the truck driver might not know who's responsible for maintenance under the contract, so your lawyer will likely have to request that information during the discovery process.
If the accident was caused by faulty brakes or some other mechanical malfunction, liability could be on the manufacturer of the truck or of that specific part. If the accident was the result of improper loading or other cargo issue, or some failure that should've been detected during routine maintenance, that would be the fault of whoever had the responsibility to maintain and load the truck (the shipper, driver, owner, etc.).
Even if the accident was due to driver error, it could still be the company's liability (or the company and the driver could both be defendants). In certain circumstances, an employer is responsible for the negligent acts of an employee. Truck accidents sometimes happen because the driver was on the road for too long, went too many hours without sleep, or didn't take enough rest stops. The employer can bear some responsibility for those situations.
North Carolina pure contributory fault law
If there's a lawsuit to recover damages after a truck accident, the first thing that happens is that the plaintiff files a claim. In that claim, the plaintiff will allege that the defendant is solely at fault, or that their negligence caused the accident.
Sometimes, the court might find that the plaintiff has some degree of liability, however small. For example, even if the truck was speeding or made an unsafe lane change, perhaps the driver of the car could have reacted sooner in a way that would avoid a collision. In that situation, the court might find that the defendant (truck driver) is 95% liable and the plaintiff (accident victim) is 5% liable.
In many states, a plaintiff's award would be decreased by their percentage of liability. So, in the example above, if the plaintiff was entitled to recover $100,000 in damages, their total damage recovery would be subtracted by 5% and they'd receive $95,000.
However, the Tarheel State does things differently.
North Carolina is one of a handful of states that follows a pure contributory fault rule of law. In North Carolina, if the plaintiff has any liability — even if it's 1% — they can't recover any damages whatsoever.
This rule might seem unfair, but it's the law.
That's why it's so important to find a North Carolina truck accident lawyer immediately who can evaluate all the evidence to determine who the correct defendant is (or if there's more than one) and strategize to prevent you from being held liable. This step can make or break your legal claim.
Common types of truck accidents
Although the possibilities are endless for how a truck accident happens, there are some types of accidents that are the most frequent. Knowing what types of truck accidents are common can help you to avoid being involved in one.
Tire blowout accidents
Both cars and trucks can have tire blowouts. When that happens, it can cause the vehicle to swerve into another lane, rollover, or jackknife. A tire blowout is usually caused by wear and tear, defective manufacturing, or routine maintenance deficiencies.
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.
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.
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.
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 load, itself, can cause an accident if the truck's center of gravity is thrown off or the movement causes the truck to move unpredictably.
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.
Truck accident causes and how to prevent them
Just like a truck accident can take any form — foreseeable or not — it can also have a variety of causes. One main cause of truck wrecks is driver error — either the truck driver's or yours.
Truck driver error that causes accidents
- Driver fatigue. There are state and federal 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 can't make up the time needed to travel the number of miles required for a load, 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.
- 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% said they 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 often under immense 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 so they make the bad decision 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.
10 tips for avoiding a truck accident
It's not always the trucker's fault. As a passenger car driver, here's what you can do to avoid a truck accident:
- Allow more space when following a truck than you would with a passenger car. A larger vehicle limits your visibility of what's ahead, including slowed or stopped traffic, construction, or other hazardous travel conditions. By leaving plenty of space between your vehicle and the truck in front of you, you have more opportunity to react if you need to make a sudden stop or swerve.
- Leave space when passing in front of a truck. A truck is much heavier than a passenger car, which means it requires more distance to stop. Don't ever cut in front of a large truck. If you can't pass with plenty of room, then stay in your lane.
- Stay out of a truck's blind spot. There's a little trick to help you know if you're in a truck's blind spot: look at the truck's side mirrors. If you can't see the truck driver's face in the mirror, the truck driver can't see you. It's safer to pass a truck on the driver's side, since they have a much wider blind spot on the passenger side.
- Be careful where you pull over on the highway. If you need to pull off the highway in between exits, try to find a wide shoulder or a designated pull-off spot. Many accidents happen because a car is pulled over and sideswiped by a passing truck that swerves a little onto the shoulder.
- Use caution if a truck is turning. A truck needs more clearance to turn than a car. In addition, the driver has less visibility. So, if you need to judge a truck's speed as it approaches an intersection or how much space it will need to clear a turn, always allow more room, rather than less. Assume that the truck is moving faster than you think it is and requires most of the intersection to make a turn.
- Never play "chicken" with a truck. If you think a truck is going to try to pass you or get in front of you, let it. The highway isn't a time to be "right" or faster, even if you think you have the right of way. Even if you don't want to allow the truck to get in front of you, do it anyway. Not doing so can have deadly consequences.
- Pass quickly. Only pass a truck when you can see that there's space ahead to do so swiftly. You don't want to linger in the lane beside a truck for any longer than necessary. Tire blowouts and rollovers happen frequently and you definitely don't want to be alongside a truck if one of these events happens.
- Be predictable. This is important in any driving situation, but especially when it comes to proximity to large trucks. Use signals clearly so that a truck driver can see what you intend to do and can adjust their own driving accordingly. Never change lanes or turn without using your signals.
- Avoid distracted driving. Highway and interstate driving, in particular, can be long and boring. But don't let yourself become too fatigued or distracted while driving. Just remember — the other drivers are bored, too. Plan your trip before you leave so that you have good music, audiobooks, podcasts, or whatever you like for entertainment already queued up. Don't be fiddling with your phone, or even the car radio, while driving. If you need to change things up, wait until you get to a rest area or find a safe place to pull over — or have a designated passenger "co-pilot" do it for you. If you begin to feel tired, take a break. Don't wait until you start to nod off, because then you're already in a dangerous situation.
- Anticipate weather conditions. Storms can happen anywhere, and sometimes they pop up fast. Bad weather creates dangerous driving conditions. You can set a weather app on your phone to alert you if a dangerous storm is coming your way. If one does happen quickly, head for the nearest exit and wait it out.
Do you need to talk to a North Carolina truck accident lawyer?
Enjuris offers a variety of resources to guide you through legal recovery, whether it's making an insurance claim or moving into the personal injury litigation process.
Our free downloadable truck accident e-book provides information about how to handle insurance companies, how to make a claim, FAQs, where to look for extra help, and how to prepare for a first meeting with a lawyer.
The Enjuris law firm directory is your free resource for finding a North Carolina truck accident lawyer who's ready to handle your claim. The right lawyer should know the mechanics of the claims process, be a skilled negotiator, and be experienced with handling cases like yours. Hiring a lawyer is the best way to receive compensation for your truck accident injury.
Need a lawyer?
Figuring out who’s at fault in a truck accident is complicated, and it’s probably a job only a truck accident lawyer can handle. There might be more parties involved than you realize, and knowing who is at fault can be the key to a successful truck accident lawsuit. Read more