If You Have Been Seriously Injured In A Tractor Trailer Accident, You May Need An Attorney.
Author: Attorney Elizabeth M. Allen
The odds are against you when you're involved in a collision with a semi tractor trailer. First, if you're occupying a car, riding a bike or walking, you're likely to be seriously injured or killed. Second, if the collision was caused by a truck driver or truck owner's negligence, you face an uphill battle to ensure that the negligent driver and his employer compensate you fairly for your damages including medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Why? The truck driver and his company have an overwhelming advantage. They have decades of experience defending claims just like yours. They have risk management departments dedicated to denying claims and minimizing payouts. They have attorneys ready to respond at a moment's notice to the company's request for legal help in challenging your claim. To even the odds, you may need a lawyer.
Time is not on your side. While you're still in your vehicle awaiting the arrival of medical help and the police, the trucking company is already beginning its own accident investigation. Unless he's severely injured, one of the first things a driver will do after colliding with another vehicle is call the home office and report the accident. He'll be instructed not to make any incriminating statements to investigating police officers. Meanwhile, the home office will contact its field investigators and accident reconstruction experts and direct them to the accident scene immediately. They may arrive at the scene while the state troopers dispatched to the location are still at work there. Occasionally they will arrive at the scene before the police. These representatives will photograph the accident scene, photograph the damaged vehicles, and take measurements of skid, scuff, and yaw marks and debris on the roadway while all the evidence is fresh. In the meantime, you may be fighting for your life in a local hospital.
It's unrealistic to think the average motorist injured in an accident with a truck can get an investigator or other expert to the accident scene as quickly as a trucking company's representatives. Nevertheless, the quicker you or a family member can engage an attorney to investigate your accident, the more likely you can gather the facts and evidence to prove the collision was the truck driver's fault, not yours. Why? Skid and scuff marks fade with time. They can disappear altogether after a heavy rain or snowstorm. The tractor trailer may be repaired before you can get a photograph of the damage it sustained in the accident. Your own car may be towed away and sold by your own insurance company before you think to have an investigator examine it, photograph it, and put it in storage if it appears the physical evidence of damage to your car is critical to proving your case. An attorney who specializes in handling tractor trailer accident cases can conduct a complete investigation of your accident and engage expert witnesses to visit the scene, review the evidence, and determine what is necessary to win your case.
Delay and procrastination on your part are the trucking company's friend. A delay in prosecuting your case can damage or destroy your claim in many ways. Every state has its own different statutes of limitation requiring that you file a personal injury lawsuit within a prescribed period of time. You may not be familiar with these laws. Unfortunately, if you fail to meet the specified deadline, you will be forever barred from making any monetary recovery. Of course, statutes of limitation do not apply solely to persons injured in trucking accidents. Every motor vehicle accident victim must comply with the applicable statute of limitations. In Virginia, the statute of limitations for a personal injury case is generally two years from the date of the accident. However, persons injured in a tractor trailer accident confront a multitude of additional "deadlines" which may affect the successful prosecution of their cases.
What deadlines? There are many of them. Let me review just a few. Under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, interstate motor carriers must "systematically inspect, repair, and maintain?all motor vehicles subject to [their] control". They must maintain a "record of inspection, repairs and maintenance indicating their date and nature." FMCSR § 396.3. Regrettably, these records must be maintained for only 1 year, or less if the truck leaves the motor carrier's control. Thereafter, they may be destroyed. If you were injured in an accident caused by the improper inspection, maintenance or repair of a tractor trailer, the trucking company's own records may provide the most important clues and evidence you need to support your claim. You want to obtain these records before they are discarded. An attorney experienced in handling tractor trailer cases will be familiar with this regulation and know how to secure the maintenance records before they are destroyed.
Every motor carrier driver must prepare a daily, written report on the truck he operated that day. The report must identify any defect or deficiency the driver has discovered or learned about which would affect the safety of the vehicle's operation or result in its mechanical breakdown. The carrier must maintain the original inspection report and certification of repairs for only 3 months from the date the written report was prepared. FMSCR § 396.11. If you were injured in an accident caused by a trucking company's failure to correct a defect in one of its tractor trailers, you want to obtain the daily driver reports in order to determine if the trucking company was aware of the defect but made the decision not to repair it, regardless of the risk to the general public. An attorney with a tractor trailer accident practice will know to request these daily reports during the discovery phase of your case.
Motor carriers are required to maintain a driver qualification file for every driver. The file must include, among other things, a driver's application of employment, information regarding a driver's driving record, the medical examiner's certificate of the driver's physical qualification to drive a commercial motor vehicle, and a list relating to violations of motor vehicle laws. Some of these items may be removed from the file after 3 years from date of execution. FMSCR § 391.51. When your lawyer obtains and reviews these documents, he may find evidence the truck driver involved in your accident had numerous prior traffic violation convictions for reckless driving or driving while intoxicated.
There are additional benefits to hiring an accomplished tractor trailer accident lawyer to represent you. He/she will be acquainted, not just with the regulations referred to above, but the myriad of other federal regulations which govern the loading, maintenance, and operation of tractor trailers. He/she can review the facts of your case to determine if a trucker's failure to comply with safety regulations regarding brakes, lighting devices, towing methods, and emergency equipment, to name just a few, contributed to cause your accident. Were the tractor trailer's tail lamps or headlights so obscured by dirt or by a tailboard that other drivers on the road couldn't see them? A lawyer with years of tractor trailer litigation experience will know which questions to ask the driver and his employer during discovery depositions to elicit proof of this kind of negligence.
When the tractor trailer operator lost control of his 80,000 pound rig and barreled into your vehicle was it because his cargo shifted? Did the trucker and/or his company ensure the tractor trailer's cargo was properly distributed and adequately secured as specified under the regulations? Through comprehensive discovery, a well trained trucking accident lawyer may develop sufficient facts in your case to answer this question in a way that will help your case.
You may have been told the truck driver wasn't at fault in your accident because he suddenly lost consciousness or suffered unexpected heart failure. A skilled tractor trailer accident attorney will obtain the truck driver's medical records and learn whether the driver was an insulin dependent diabetic or whether he had a current clinical diagnosis of myocardial infarction or angina pectoris. One of these medical conditions may explain the abrupt loss of consciousness. Under the federal regulations, persons with these conditions are not qualified to operate interstate tractor trailers. Operating a tractor trailer under such circumstances violates federal regulations and may constitute actionable negligence if the medical condition contributed to cause your accident. A skilled tractor trailer lawyer will know how to develop a powerful closing argument to a jury on these facts.
Handling a personal injury case arising out of a tractor trailer accident is usually more difficult and complicated than dealing with other types of motor vehicle accident cases. Don't let a trucking company and its insurance carrier get the upper hand. Their best interests are not aligned with yours. The less money they pay out in personal injury and wrongful death claims, the more profit they have at year's end to distribute to their owners or shareholders. Don't be lulled into a sense of false security when the insurance company offers to pay your initial medical bills or lost wages if only you won't hire a lawyer to represent you. Don't be fooled by their reassurance of help and talk of compassion for your desperate circumstances. The day will come when the money spigot stops, but by then, the critical evidence that existed to prove your personal injury case may have disappeared. Level the playing field. As soon as you or a family member is seriously injured or killed in an accident involving a tractor trailer, contact an tractor trailer accident attorney who specializes in truck accident litigation to investigate your case and give you the advice you need to safeguard you and your family's best interests.