Pennsylvania Truck Accidents, Lawsuits and Injury Compensation

A guide to semi truck accidents and how they differ from car accidents

Truck accidents often cause serious injury and death. Find out what you need to know if you were injured in a truck accident, whether you were the truck driver or a passenger vehicle occupant.

It's one thing to be rear-ended by a 2,000 pound Mazda Miata, but it's another thing altogether to be rear-ended by an 80,000-pound semi-truck.

Truck accidents are more likely than car accidents to result in serious or fatal injuries. A recent study published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that trucks account for 4% of the country's highway traffic, but are involved in 10% of fatal road crashes.

In Pennsylvania, truck crashes raise several questions that don't generally apply to car accidents. For example:

  • Is the truck driver liable for the accident, or the truck driver's employer?
  • Can a truck driver receive workers' compensation benefits if they're injured in a crash?
  • How do state and federal trucking laws impact the recovery of damages after a truck accident?

In this article, we'll take a look at these questions and more.

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What vehicles qualify as "trucks"?

The Pennsylvania Vehicle Code defines "truck" as "a motor vehicle designed primarily for the transportation of property."

In some cases, the specific characteristics of a truck (such as the gross vehicle weight) determine whether a law applies to that truck. But, generally speaking, when people refer to a "truck accident," they're referring to a crash involving any of the following large commercial vehicles:

  • Delivery truck
  • Semi-truck
  • Tractor trailer
  • Big rig
  • 18-wheeler
  • Dump truck
  • Tow truck
  • Box truck

Pennsylvania truck accident statistics

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the number of people injured (not including fatalities) in truck crashes every year across the nation has nearly doubled since 2009, from 74,000 people to 145,000 people.

The number of people killed in truck accidents has risen since 2009 as well, from 3,380 people in 2009 to 4,657 people in 2017 (the last year for which data is available).

Unfortunately for drivers in the Keystone State, Pennsylvania is among the 10 worst states with the highest average number of fatal truck crashes every year.

Pennsylvania Truck Crashes and Fatalities (2014-2018 )

In Pennsylvania, truck accidents amounted to 5.7% of all vehicle crashes, 10.7% of all fatal crashes, and 5.5% of all injury crashes in 2018. Tweet this

Common causes of truck accidents

The FMCSA investigated the actions that lead to truck accidents and found that they could generally be broken down as follows:
  • Non-performance (12%): The driver fell asleep, was disabled by a heart attack or seizure, or was physically impaired for another reason.
  • 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.
  • Decision (38%): The driver was driving too fast for conditions, misjudged the speed of other vehicles, or followed other vehicles too closely.
  • Performance (9%): The driver panicked, overcompensated, or exercised poor directional control.
  • Vehicle (10%): Vehicle failures, such as brake problems.
  • Environment (3%): Fog, heavy rain, bad weather or roadway problems.

PennDOT kept track of Pennsylvania truck crashes involving vehicle failures in 2018 and found the following:

Pennsylvania heavy truck crashes involving vehicle failures (2018)
Defect Number of crashes
Tire or wheel 114
Brake 85
Unsecure or overloaded trailer 36
Powertrain failure 25
Total steering system failure 12
Suspension 11
Other 7
Trailer hitch or improper towing 6
Vehicle lighting issue 1

Source: PennDOT 2018 Pennsylvania Crash Facts & Statistics

Despite the prevalence of vehicle failures, driver error is a contributing factor in most fatal crashes involving large trucks. Common driver errors include:

  • Speeding
  • Failure to yield the right of way
  • Driver fatigue
  • Careless driving

Driver fatigue is a particularly serious problem in the trucking industry. Studies show that fatigue can cause shortfalls in performance, including slower response times, attention failures, and poor decision making.

Facing facts According to a large truck study by FMCSA, roughly 13% of commercial vehicle drivers who crash are fatigued.

Because of the risks presented by "driving while drowsy," federal laws governing the trucking industry establish certain hours-of-service limitations.

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)

There are also a number of state laws intended to reduce the number of truck crashes in Pennsylvania. Most of these laws are found in Title 75 of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code and cover things like:

  • Registration requirements
  • Maximum truck sizes and loads
  • Legal wheel, axle, and gross vehicle weights
  • Special hauling permits
  • Crash reporting

Who's at fault in a truck accident?

In truck accident cases, determining who's at fault usually means determining who was negligent (i.e., failed to exercise reasonable care). Often, this is the truck driver, but not always. Others could be at fault for a truck accident, including:

  • 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 more hours than permitted by the law).
  • 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.

In Pennsylvania, the legal theory of "respondeat superior" can be used to hold a company responsible for a truck accident caused by its truck driver employee. Under this theory, the employer is liable for the actions of its employee so long as the acts were:

  • Unintentional, and
  • Committed within the scope of the employee's employment and in furtherance of the employer's business.

Shared liability laws

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?

Pennsylvania follows the modified comparative fault theory. Under this theory, the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover is reduced by a percentage that reflects the plaintiff's degree of fault. If, however, the plaintiff's degree of fault exceeds 50%, the plaintiff is prohibited from recovering any damages.

For example, let's say Dan is driving an 18-wheeler across the Roberto Clemente Bridge. He's following the car in front of him too closely. The car is driven by Ben. Ben is texting and drops his phone. When he reaches to pick it up, he accidentally slams on his brakes. Dan rear-ends Ben's car, resulting in Ben being paralyzed. Ben decides to sue Dan. The court determines that Dan was 60% at fault for the accident, while Ben was 40% at fault.

In this scenario, Ben would only be able to recover 60% of his damages due to Pennsylvania's modified comparative fault laws.

Enjuris tip: A truck accident attorney can help you determine whether the company should be sued in addition to the employee. In general, including the employer in your lawsuit increases your chances of recovery, as the employer generally has deeper pockets.

Truck accidents and insurance

Pennsylvania is different from most states with respect to how accident victims handle the claims-filing process.

In most states, insurance is either no-fault or fault-based:

  • No-fault insurance systems. In states with a no-fault insurance system, all drivers in an accident—no matter who's responsible—turn to their own insurance policies to cover the damages.
  • Fault-based insurance systems. In states with a fault-based insurance system, the person responsible for causing a car accident is also responsible for paying the damages.

In Pennsylvania, it's up to each driver to decide whether to purchase no-fault insurance (sometimes called "limited tort" insurance coverage) or fault-based insurance (sometimes called "full tort" insurance coverage).

If you have no-fault insurance and you're injured in a truck accident, you'll file an insurance claim with your own insurance provider. You won't have to determine who's at fault or prove negligence in order to obtain immediate financial recovery. On the downside, you won't (except in rare circumstances) be able to recover damages for emotional distress or pain and suffering.

With fault-based insurance, your rights are unrestricted. In other words, you'll be able to attempt to recover all of your damages from the at-fault driver. On the downside, fault-based insurance policies are generally more expensive than no-fault insurance policies and you may need to wait longer to receive compensation.

What if you're a truck driver and you're injured in a truck accident?

In most cases, truck drivers can file workers' compensation claims. Workers' compensation is a form of insurance that pays medical expenses and lost wages to employees who are injured while doing their job.

In Pennsylvania, workers' compensation is "no-fault" insurance. As a result, claims are paid regardless of who's to blame for the accident. Pennsylvania workers' compensation pays medical expenses, wage loss benefits, and death benefits for certain family members.

Truck accident damages available

Trucks can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. What's more, they sit higher than most cars, which means that cars can actually get crushed underneath trucks. As a result, trucks are dangerous and can cause extensive damages and even death.

Common examples of truck accident injuries include:

  • Broken bones
  • Internal injuries
  • Lacerations
  • Burns

Pennsylvania awards both economic damages and non-economic damages in truck accident cases. Economic damages refer to those damages that you can easily put a price tag on (medical expenses, lost wages, etc.). Non-economic damages refer to those damages that are harder to quantify (pain and suffering, emotional distress, etc.).

What to do after a truck accident

If you're involved in a truck accident in Pennsylvania, there are 5 critical steps to take:

Step 1: Stop and provide assistance

Following an accident, Pennsylvania drivers are required by law to:

  • Stop their vehicle at the scene or as close to the scene as possible,
  • Provide their name, address, registration number, and driver's license to others involved in the accident, and
  • Assist any injured persons (including yourself)

Step 2: Gather evidence

Once you're safe, it's important to start gathering evidence. Here are some things to gather after an accident:

  • Photographs of the crash scene and any damages
  • Contact information for any witnesses
  • Contact information for any drivers or passengers involved in the crash

Step 3: Visit your doctor

Even if you don't think you're seriously hurt, it's important to visit your doctor after a truck accident. Some injuries, including serious internal injuries, don't show symptoms until hours or even days after an accident. Regardless, going to the hospital after a crash starts a paper trail that can be used to support the legitimacy of your claim down the road.

Step 4: Report the crash

In Pennsylvania, you're required to file a report within 5 days of the accident if:

  • The accident was not investigated by the police, and
  • The accident resulted in death, injury, or severe damage to any vehicle.

To file a report, you'll need to complete the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Driver's Accident Report form and mail it to the address listed on the form.

Step 5: Consult an attorney

More often than not, truck accidents involve serious injuries or death. The severity of damage, in addition to the complexity of determining who is at fault, means that it's typically in the best interest of truck accident victims to talk to a knowledgeable personal injury lawyer.

Many people don't realize that most truck accident attorneys offer free initial consultations. Even if you believe you weren't seriously injured and you didn't suffer significant financial losses after a wreck, we recommend consulting an attorney to make sure you're not missing anything or falling into any common traps.

Still have questions? Ready to hire someone to fight for the money you deserve? Use our free online legal directory to locate an experienced Pennsylvania attorney in your area.

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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

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