Who’s Liable in a Truck Accident?

truck accident liability

There can be several parties at fault in a truck accident

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.

If you’ve been in a truck accident, you already know that it’s a scary experience. Your first action should be getting the medical treatment you need. Once you’re on the road to recovery, you can begin to think about your legal options.

If you or a loved one were badly injured, the medical bills are probably already beginning to stack up. We want to help you navigate the legal process to cover medical costs and obtain the money to continue to pay for your future expenses.

There are several differences between establishing liability in a truck accident and if the crash had been between two passenger cars.

Differences between truck accidents and car crashes

If you’re in a collision with another car, these are the parties involved:

  • You (your insurance company)
  • The other driver (their insurance company)

It’s likely that the liability will be split between you and the other driver, unless there was some additional factors like a bicyclist or act of nature that caused the crash.

Enjuris tip: "Liability" is the legal term for responsibility, duty, or obligation. Every person has some duty to another — generally, your duty is to act in a way that’s reasonable based on the situation.

Read more about liability and personal injury claims.

As a driver, you always have a duty to be careful, follow the rules of the road, and exercise good judgment in order to protect yourself and anyone else who shares the road from harm.

That’s true for drivers of passenger cars, big rigs, and everything in between. But there are additional factors if the accident involves a commercial truck.

The driver might be at fault, but liability might be on several other parties, too. Unlike an accident that involves you and another passenger car driver, you need to know who is driving that truck in order to establish liability.

What are the liability issues in a truck accident?

There are several parties that can be liable in a truck accident, and what often makes these cases complicated is determining who is liable for what, and to what extent.

First, you should know that there are 3 main types of truck drivers:

  1. Owner-operators: These people own the trucks they drive and either lease to a trucking company or are independent contractors. If they lease to a trucking company, it means that they have a contract to haul freight for that company using their own trucks. If they’re independent contractors, they likely haul loads for several companies.
  2. Company drivers: A company driver is employed by a specific trucking company and drives the company’s trucks.
  3. Independent owner-operators: These drivers drive their own trucks to haul their goods, and they might own a small fleet.

Who the liable party is in a truck accident depends on which of these categories they’re in.

1. Vehicle maintenance

In addition to driving responsibly, you also have a duty to ensure that your vehicle is generally safe and operating as it should. Certainly, a car can fail — brakes might go out, power steering problems, or other mechanical troubles that could cause an accident — but if your car has had routine inspections and you’ve performed the required maintenance, those kinds of issues wouldn’t be your fault.

If the accident was caused because the other driver’s car had a maintenance issue that the driver should have known about and repaired, that would increase their liability.

The person or company who owns or leases the vehicle is responsible for its maintenance. There are likely provisions in a contract between the owner and the shipper, or whoever is involved, with respect to maintenance. You won’t have any way of knowing what’s in those contracts; that’s something your lawyer will need to ask for during the discovery process.

If the accident was caused by faulty brakes or other mechanical malfunction, liability could be on the manufacturer of the truck or the part. If the mechanical experts determine that’s what happened, those parties could be added as additional defendants in a lawsuit.

2. Driver’s employment

This is another area where your lawyer needs to discover who hired the driver, or if they were self-employed. The driver could be:

  • Employed by an independent agency that leases drivers to a trucking company
  • A purely independent contractor hired directly by the trucking company
  • An employee of the trucking company
  • Self-employed and operating a truck they own

Even if the accident is driver error (because of speeding, distracted driving, fatigue, or poor maneuvering), the company who employs the driver might bear some fault. Driver error is a major cause of trucking accidents and injuries, and sometimes it’s because a driver has been on the road for too long a shift, went too many hours without sleep, or didn’t take enough rest stops. Often, the employer is to blame for these situations.

The driver’s employer might be liable if the driver was intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

3. Cargo load problems

There are very specific requirements for how a truck must be loaded. Aside from the size and weight of the truck itself, they’re transporting raw materials, works in process, or finished goods between manufacturing plants or to a retail distribution center.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulates the safety of interstate commercial driving. There are restrictions on weight, types of material, and method for how a load is hauled.

If a load isn’t secured or balanced properly, or if it’s too heavy for the vehicle, it makes the truck more dangerous. It might impact the driver’s ability to stop the truck quickly, or it can increase the rollover risk.

Lots of trucks are hauling hazardous materials. Here are just a few examples of hazmat loads that could be dangerous in an accident:

  • Fuel (gasoline, diesel, propane, kerosene)
  • Fuel-powered equipment
  • Dry ice
  • Items containing mercury
  • Refrigerant gases (liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide)
  • Oxygen tanks
  • Consumer electronics with lithium batteries
  • Fertilizer compounds and ammonium nitrate fertilizers

Sometimes a hazmat load might cause a fire that engulfs nearby cars. It can also release vapors into the air that are harmful for you to breathe, even for a short time. The vapors can even harm people who live or are present near the scene of the accident, depending on the substance and the amount that permeates the air.

If the shipper didn’t load cargo according to its regulations and you were injured in an accident involving a hazmat truck, the liability could be on the shipper of the materials in addition to the trucking company that employs the driver. 

Product liability claims in a truck accident

Product liability is included within the category of legal claims known as strict liability. Product liability is when you’re injured by a defective product.

Enjuris tip: Read more about strict liability and product liability in personal injury cases.

Although the trucking company is responsible for the truck’s maintenance, there can be problems with the way the truck was designed or manufactured.

The most common product liability claims in truck accidents are:

  • Brake failure
  • Defective trailer hitch
  • Steering problems
  • Load straps
  • Coupling systems
  • Tires
  • Locks
  • Hydraulics

Most passenger cars have a single manufacturer that makes and assembles the parts. Big rigs, on the other hand, can have components that come from several manufacturers.

If the accident was caused by failure of a part of the truck, the manufacturer of either the truck or the part might be a responsible party.

Hiring a truck accident lawyer

A truck accident could be caused by one of these factors or a combination of several, which is what makes this kind of lawsuit so complicated. It could be further complicated if you have any liability in the crash.

The insurance companies want to pay out as little as possible—and that includes your own. It’s important to remember that your insurance company isn’t your lawyer. The adjuster’s job is to cover your losses with as little money spent from the insurance company as they can manage. Although they’re representing your interests against another insurance company, they are still going to put their own interests before yours.

A personal injury lawyer’s job is to represent YOU. Even if you have some liability in the crash, they’re going to work hard to minimize your role so that you can still recover for the liability of the other parties. If someone else was responsible (the other driver, trucking company, manufacturer, or some other party), your lawyer will find out through the discovery process.

Silence is golden. Don’t talk with another party’s insurance company after a crash. Your lawyer should handle communication. Tweet this

If you don’t already have a lawyer on speed-dial, don’t worry. Use the Enjuris Personal Injury Law Firm Directory to find the best truck accident lawyer for your case.

Here are some additional resources for after a truck accident:


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