Truck accidents should not be viewed as car accidents with bigger vehicles. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations establish rules for commercial vehicles which can differ and can be more stringent than the rules of the road for ordinary drivers. Such regulations must be considered in determining whether the driver and/or motor carrier was negligent in causing the collision.
Although police investigations of crashes involving a commercial vehicle are often more thorough than when no commercial vehicle is involved, if injuries did not appear critical at the time of the incident, the police investigation will often lack the details needed to assess liability fully. For example, was the weight of the load considered in determinations or estimates of braking distance? Could a shifting load have caused the incident? Was the functioning of all braking systems thoroughly inspected and tested? Was the driver drug tested?
The basic data documented by the police immediately following the incident is invaluable, but returning to the scene with retained experts as soon as possible may be crucial. Accident scene evidence can be quickly lost to the elements and traffic. Measuring and photographing defects in the pavement, the slope of the road, vehicle debris, markings made by the police as part of their accident reconstruction can all be helpful in developing a fuller picture of what went wrong. Obtaining aerial photographs while police markings or road damage is still evident can also convey the full picture of the accident to the insurer or a jury as the case develops. Timely investigation of the accident scene, as well as the involved vehicles, may also reveal errors in the initial governmental investigation.
Although accident scene investigation and documentation is usually the most urgent aspect of a truck crash case, another hurdle will likely be the drivers’ commercial relationship to the carrier and/or the injured party. For example, a passenger in a truck may not be a co-employee and the driver/carrier may not be protected by workers’ compensation immunity laws. The motor carrier may consider the driver an independent contractor which may limit available insurance coverage or assets. Even where the relationship may be one of an independent contractor on paper, the indicia of control, including potentially the DOT number being used or the ownership of the vehicle, could give rise to a finding of an employer/employee relationship or vicarious liability even where an employee/employer relationship does not exist. See Kavanaugh v. Trustees of Boston University, 440 Mass. 195, 198 (2003); Peters v. Haymarket Leasing, 64 Mass. App. Ct. 767 (2005); Restatement (Second) of Agency Section 220 (2).
Many commercial motor vehicle wrecks involve a loss of stability and/or actual roll-overs. Such basic facts as to whether the driver themselves loaded the trailer or simply picked up the trailer that was loaded by others must be determined. The truck driver’s statement usually provides the first clue in determining whether an unstable load contributed to a truck crash. Such statements should obviously be viewed with caution, however.
Because of the size and weight of the vehicles involved, truck accidents often cause catastrophic injuries. Whenever possible, an attorney must be able to launch his or her investigation quickly and gather information while evidence is still fresh.