Who Is Liable in a Truck Accident?

The ins and outs of trucking accident liability

By Kimberly Lekman, Esq. | Last updated on May 11, 2022

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If you or a loved one has been injured in a truck accident, the first thing you should do is seek medical care. A large truck can cause more damage than a passenger vehicle because it weighs tens of thousands of pounds. When such a large commercial vehicle collides with a passenger car, it can cause severe injuries and vehicle damage. Not all physical injuries are apparent right away, so it’s wise to seek medical attention immediately after the accident.

Once you or your loved one is recuperating, you might consider filing a lawsuit to recover some of your medical expenses, lost income, and other damages. However, determining who is at fault in a commercial truck accident can be complex. Various people and entities can be liable, but it depends on the details of your case. For instance, one company might employ a truck driver, and another might own and load the cargo. A third company might lease the truck to the trucking company. Depending on the details of your case, you may be able to sue any or all these parties.

To understand your legal options and determine who the responsible parties are in a truck crash, you should seek legal advice from an experienced truck accident lawyer. Before you meet with an attorney, it may be helpful to get an overview of the issues involved in determining who is liable for truck accidents. The rundown below will help to give you an idea of which people and entities you might be able to sue to recover for your truck accident.

How is Fault in a Truck Accident Determined?

Determining who is liable in a truck crash depends on the facts of the case. To sue for a truck accident, you must show that a person or entity contributed to the accident through negligent, reckless, or intentional acts or omissions.

Most truck accident lawsuits are founded on the theory of negligence. To show negligence, you need to establish that a person or entity owed you a legal duty, that they failed to fulfill this duty, and that this breach caused you harm. Truckers and trucking companies have several legal responsibilities, or duties, to the public. For instance, they must obey the rules of the road and must follow federal laws that regulate the trucking industry.

Further, all drivers owe a duty to others on roadways. Drivers must pay attention to traffic, they must maintain their vehicle, and they must follow traffic laws. In passenger car accidents, the responsibility usually lies with one of the two car drivers. One of the car drivers usually made a mistake that negligently caused the accident. Although car accidents can also involve manufacturing defects, road damage, and weather conditions, they are typically much less complex than truck accidents.

Multiple parties, such as trucking companies or cargo loaders, might be responsible for truck crashes. Because many parties can be at fault, there could be several defendants in your truck accident case. An experienced truck accident attorney will likely need to determine who you can sue. Some examples of defendants in truck accident lawsuits are as follows.

The Trucking Company

You may be able to sue the company that employed the truck driver. The trucking company might be at fault for the truck driver’s negligence if the driver was acting within the scope of their work tasks when the accident occurred. By virtue of being the employer, the trucking company will be liable for the truck driver’s negligent acts while they are working.

To determine whether a truck driver should legally be considered an employee or independent contractor, courts will consider how much control the trucking company had over the driver. The more control the company had over the driver, the more likely it was that they had an employer-employee relationship. If the trucking company controls the driver’s routes, sets their schedule, acquires their permits, and provides them with employment benefits, they are probably their employer. As their employer, they can be liable for the driver’s negligent acts.

By contrast, if a truck driver is the owner-operator of their own truck, pays for the fuel themselves, and controls their own hours, they are more likely to be an independent contractor. As an independent contractor, the driver’s employer will generally not be liable for their negligence. Many trucking companies hire their truckers as independent contractors to avoid liability for their negligence.

Federal Regulations That Can Affect a Trucking Company’s Liability

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) enforces federal laws limiting how many consecutive hours a trucker can work. These limits are called hours of service limits. If the trucking company encouraged the driver to work too many hours, they could be at fault.

The trucking company is also responsible for engaging in proper hiring procedures. They should run background checks on their drivers to ensure they are suitable for the job. One of the most significant issues they must look out for is substance abuse problems. You might be able to sue the employer trucking company if they knew that the trucker in your case had issues with drugs or alcohol.

The Cargo Loader

A trucking company often acts as a contractor for a company that owns and loads cargo onto its truck. In some cases, you may be able to sue the company that loaded the cargo.

As with other aspects of trucking, cargo is subject to numerous regulations. According to the FMCSA, federal laws specify that cargo must be adequately secured, tied, and anchored. The cargo loaders must also position the load to not fall out of the truck. There are additional rules for certain types of cargo, such as concrete pipes, boulders, and building products.

If loose or overweight cargo contributed to your truck accident, you should ask your attorney whether you can sue the cargo loading company or shipper.

The Owner of the Truck or Truck Manufacturer

Companies often have leases on their trucks rather than owning them in the trucking industry. If the leasing company’s behavior negligently contributed to your accident, you may be able to sue it too. Additionally, the leasing company could be liable if it neglected its truck maintenance duties.

In some cases, a tractor-trailer accident might occur because of defective breaks, a tire blowout, or other mechanical failures. If your truck accident happened because of an equipment malfunction, you might be able to sue the truck manufacturer or truck parts manufacturer.

The Truck Driver

Suppose your truck accident happened while the driver was acting within the scope of their employment. In that case, you will probably not be able to sue the driver. Instead, you will likely sue the trucking company that employed the driver. However, if the truck driver did something illegal like driving while texting or intoxicated, you must sue them personally. When employees engage in unlawful acts, their employers are generally not responsible.

Further, if the truck driver was the owner-operator of their commercial vehicle and worked as an independent contractor, you can likely sue them personally for negligence.

The Entities That Designed or Maintained the Road

Local governments and their contractors are responsible for designing and maintaining roadways. They should maintain the roads to keep them in good shape and repair any known hazards. But truck accidents and other motor vehicle wrecks have been known to happen in instances when there are potholes or cracks in roadways. These hazards can make a truck swerve or even roll over, causing accidents. If a damaged road surface contributed to the truck wreck you experienced, you might be able to sue the local government or contractor who was responsible for its maintenance.

Why Hire a Truck Accident Attorney?

You will likely need the expert help of an attorney to determine who to sue in your truck accident case.

A skilled truck accident attorney and their law firm staff will do a thorough analysis of the facts of your case. They will gather evidence, request police reports, and medical records, and draw on their experience. Once this analysis is complete, you and your attorney can determine who you can sue.

Further, your attorney will need to stand up to the insurance companies representing the trucker and trucking company. The insurance company will have a specialized legal team who will work hard to minimize the award amount you receive from them. Having an experienced truck driving lawyer on your side will help you build a convincing case against these legal professionals.

Truck accident lawyers typically offer a free consultation. You should use this first meeting to get an evaluation from the attorney about what they think your truck accident claim might be worth. They might have represented clients in similar cases, which will help them assess the value of your claim. Further, it would help to ask them about their experience taking truck accident cases to trial. It’s wise to choose an attorney who has trial experience in the field of truck accidents. If they are known for accepting settlements too quickly, it might put you in a poor bargaining position.

It’s a good idea to ask for the attorney’s fee schedule at this first meeting too. An attorney’s fees may be a significant factor in your choice of representation. Most personal injury lawyers, including truck accident lawyers, work on a contingency fee basis. When lawyers get paid a contingency fee, they will not charge you an hourly rate. Instead, they collect a percentage of your award or settlement at the conclusion of your claim. These percentages can range from about 30 to 45 percent.

Although it might take some time, meeting with a few attorneys before choosing one can be worthwhile. You will want to select someone who offers a reasonable fee schedule and whose legal advice you trust.

For more information on this area of law, see our overview on trucking accidents.

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