Who's liable—the truck driver, the trucking company, a manufacturer—for your truck accident damages?
Every motorist, passenger, pedestrian, and bicyclist needs to share the road with others. But trucks (we're talking about commercial trucks, semi-trailers, or "big rig" vehicles) involve more than just the driver. When you share the road with a truck, you're also sharing with its driver, manufacturer, shipping company, cargo loader, or even other entities.
That's why a truck accident tends to be more complex than an accident between 2 passenger cars. The size and bulk of a truck increase the likelihood of accidents, and a car driver who gets into a collision with a large truck is at risk for suffering severe injuries. Therefore, a truck accident can result in high costs to an injured person and determining who's liable for those costs can present challenges unique to trucks and the trucking industry.
Tennessee truck accident statistics
The table below shows Tennessee truck accident fatalities in 2010 and 2017 (the most recent year for which data are available):
|Number of fatalities||82||121|
|Fatalities per million people||12.92||18.02|
These numbers reflect fatal crashes involving large trucks, as reported to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
Here's how Tennessee ranks in relation to other states:
Causes of truck accidents
One of the keys to avoiding a truck accident is knowing what causes them. Sometimes the truck driver causes an accident, but there are times when the passenger driver is at fault.
Common causes of truck accidents by commercial truck drivers
- Inadequate training on driving techniques, safety, and defensive driving.
- Fatigue or exhaustion from a trucking company's schedule pressure and too many road hours with too few hours of sleep or breaks.
Common causes of truck accidents by passenger vehicle drivers
- Failure to move a disabled vehicle completely onto the shoulder of the highway
- Driving in the truck driver's blind spots (areas behind or next to a commercial truck)
- Driving in between 2 or more large trucks
- Fast maneuvers like abrupt lane changes in front of a truck
- Moving into traffic from the shoulder or merging from an on-ramp without sufficient acceleration in front of a truck
- Moving to the right of a truck that's making a right turn
- Passing too close to a truck and being blown to the side by air turbulence or crosswind
- Making a left turn in front of a truck while misjudging its speed
- Failure to slow down or speed up when a truck begins to change lanes or merge
Common causes of truck accidents by either a truck or car driver
- Driver fatigue. Drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. If you're too tired to drive, you might have trouble focusing or concentrating. 21% of fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver.Federal laws and regulations provide rules for how many hours a truck driver may be behind the wheel at a time and how many hours of sleep are required in between. Still, some trucking companies push the limits or break the rules entirely. It's not uncommon for a schedule to make it impossible for a driver to make good enough time to travel the number of miles required for a load, so they instead must sleep fewer hours in order to get to the destination on time. As a result, there are truck drivers who fall asleep at the wheel, or who lose concentration or coordination and are slow to react to a traffic situation.
- Distracted driving. We hear about texting and driving all the time because it's a big problem. But distracted driving isn't just texting. It can be eating, checking a map or directions (on a device or on paper), or even just losing concentration on a long and uninteresting strip of highway.
- 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.Of course, non-truck drivers can cause accidents by driving under the influence, too. The bottom line: Don't do it.
- Speeding. Drivers are under 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.
Types of truck accidents
It's impossible to predict how an accident can happen, but there are a few common types of truck accidents.
Here are some of the ways a truck accident happens:
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.
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.
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 an 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.
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.
Truck accident liability and damages in Tennessee
It might seem like some types of truck accidents are without fault or human error.
For example: If a tire blows out, who's to blame?
Sometimes, accidents are just that… accidents. But the concept behind personal injury law is that someone needs to be held liable in order for you to recover any damages.
Damages are the costs you can recover after you're injured in an accident.
Personal injury law aims to restore the injured person to the financial condition they'd be in if the accident hadn't happened. Damages would cover expenses that include:
- Medical treatment
- Lost wages
- Lost property
If the accident resulted in very serious injuries, you might also be able to recover damages for losses that don't have a specific financial value, including pain and suffering (or other emotional distress), loss of consortium, or punitive damages.
So, who pays for these damages?
Tennessee is also a comparative negligence state, which means each driver is assigned a percentage of liability for an accident. A driver who is more than 50% at fault for an accident cannot recover any damages in a lawsuit. If your liability is 50% or less, the amount of damages you can receive would be reduced by the percent of your liability.
In other words, if your damage award was $60,000 and you were 20% liable, the amount you receive would be reduced to $48,000.
But in a truck accident, sometimes liability isn't clear.
Even if it seems to be the result of driver error, it can be complicated because a driver's legal status related to the vehicle can affect the outcome of a claim.
3 types of truck drivers
- Owner-operators 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 are employees of a trucking company and only drive that company's trucks.
- Independent owner-operators 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.
Possible liable parties
- 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.
Aside from being related to the truck, itself, there could be liability for road conditions, poor sign visibility, or other issues. Other parties involved could be highway road crews, government agencies (like the department of transportation), or others involved with maintaining roadways.
10 tips for avoiding 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/drowsy 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.
Contact a Tennessee truck accident lawyer
If you've been involved in a truck accident, Enjuris offers a variety of resources to help you navigate the legal system. For starters, our free, downloadable Truck Accident Ebook includes worksheets and guides to prepare for your first meeting with a lawyer, along with additional detail about how to handle your truck accident.
You should also reach out to a respected Tennessee truck accident attorney near you who is experienced, skilled, and ready to handle your claim.
Lastly, remember this:
A trucking company, manufacturer, or another potentially liable party in a truck accident likely has deep pockets and a team of lawyers who defend these cases every day. Their sole objective is to pay out as little money as possible to an injured person. Your insurance company, alone, might be no match for that — because your claims adjuster handles hundreds of cases a day, too.
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