In 2016, NHTSA reported there were 119,000 large truck and bus crashes in the United States. In these crashes, approximately 180,000 folks were injured. In these crashes, approximately 4,700 folks lost their lives. If you have ever driven from South Florida to Jacksonville, Tallahassee or the Panhandle, you know that Florida is a pretty long state. In 2017, approximately 275 folks died in Truck and Bus crashes, and thousands were injured. The obvious reason for a high number of injuries and death in truck accidents is the speed and weight of the vehicles. When you have 40,000 to 80,000 pounds bearing down at any speed the chances of injury and death is pretty high, which is why truck and bus drivers must be careful on Florida’s roads.
Commercial Truck Accidents are Different Than Car Accidents
Aside from the potential for more significant injuries in truck accidents, these accidents are just different than a typical car accident. Let’s spend a moment comparing and contrasting these two types of accidents.
- In a car accident, there is usually only one person to blame or sue. In a truck accident, there is usually multiple parties, individuals and companies from multiple states.
- A car accident usually involves another person from the same locality or state. If a lawsuit is filed, it is usually filed in State Court in the county of the accident. For instance, a lawsuit that stems from a car accident that happens in Leesburg on Citrus Blvd will be filed in Lake County Circuit Court in Tavares. On the other hand, in truck accident cases, the odds are that the driver and company will be located outside of Florida, so the case will usually end up in Federal Court, which makes the lawsuit a much different experience.
- The most common type of car accident claim is a rear-end crash. A person is sitting at a light or a stop sign and is rear-ended by another driver. In this fact scenario, there is usually no dispute over who was at fault for the accident. On the other hand, because of the size of semi-trucks and their trailers, truck accidents usually happen with lane changes. A lane change accident can lead to factual disputes over the speed of the vehicles, whether there was enough room to change lanes, and who was at fault for the crash.
- Car accident cases see much less serious and permanent injury because of the size of the vehicles involved. Additionally, car accidents claims can have little to no insurance available to compensate the injured person for their injuries. On the other hand, truck accidents usually have more serious injuries, and the limits of insurance are typically higher, which allows the injured person to receive adequate compensation.
- Professional versus amateur drivers. Think about it, most of the time in a two-vehicle car crash, the drivers are not professional drivers (those that earn a living on the road). On the other hand, truck drivers have tougher license requirements, medical clearance, and they drive for a living, which places a higher degree of care on the truck driver.
The Potential Parties in a Truck Accident Case
The trucking industry is large and varied. There are a number of mom and pop companies that have owner-operators. This means a man or woman goes out and buys a tractor, and starts a business. Typically, owner/operators will lease their rigs and drivers to other motor freight companies, which is why you may see a whole bunch of numbers on the side of the tractor on the roadway. Let’s spend a moment and look at the potential parties involved in a semi-truck accident claim.
- The driver of the tractor. He can be a leased employee of the motor carrier, a true employee, or an independent contractor.
- The owner of the tractor. She can be working for herself or she may have leased the tractor to another company for this one load or for many loads.
- The owner of the trailer. Many times the trailer is owned by another company and leased for the load. Sometimes, the owner of the tractor also owns the trailer.
- The renting or leasing company. In this situation, the renting or leasing company may be responsible for maintenance on the tractor/trailer.
- The Trucking Company/Carrier. This may be the entity with the Department of Transportation registration – the company that is licensed to haul the load.
- Shipper or Broker. Based on the facts of the crash, the shipping company or company that brokered the deal may be responsible for the accident.
- Maintenance Company/Mechanic. A third-party maintenance company or mechanic may have some responsibility if the truck accident was caused by some mechanical failure or breakdown.
- The Manufacturer of the Tractor or Trailer. If there was a defect in the rig or trailer that contributed to the accident, the manufacturer may be responsible under a products liability theory of liability.
As you can imagine there can be a number of moving parts in Truck Accident claims, which is why an injured person should retain a Florida trucking accident lawyer as soon as practical.
Determining Fault in a Florida Truck Accident Claim
Somebody could be severely injured or killed in a Florida truck accident, but the injury itself does not automatically make the trucker responsible. Under Florida law, the injured person has to show that one of the other parties are at fault for the crash. The two most common reasons for a Florida truck accident is (1) the driver and the driving; and/or (2) the equipment.
Was The Truck Driver at Fault?
If we look at statistics that pertain to Florida truck accidents, we can identify some trends:
- In Florida, distracted, careless and inattentive driving is more than two times the national average. Every year, the number of truck crashes because of smartphones, (texting etc.) is rising.
- In Florida, improper equipment as a contributing factor in truck accidents is about two times the national average.
- Truck drivers failing to pay attention caused about 65% of all truck accident-related deaths.
- Improper lane change causing death in Florida is much higher than the national average.
- Florida truck drivers failing to obey traffic control devices is usually the second or third leading cause of trucking accident deaths.
Based on the recent statistics, facts and evidence need to be found to support careless driving on behalf of the trucker. A professional truck driver is a person who is trained, specially licensed, specifically endorsed, held to strict codes of conduct, operating under state and federal law and regulations, with a mandated and certified level of physical and mental fitness, with specialized knowledge, who transports people, goods, and/or hazardous materials for profit. With this level of risk, truck drivers are required to drive at safe speeds, receive adequate rest, and pay attention to the roadway.
Because truck drivers are professionals, it is important that they meet the required physical and mental standards to drive in Florida.
Truck Drivers need to be certified every two years under the Federal guidelines as physically and mentally fit to drive. On TV, the typical truck driver is seen as an out of shape man. In the real world, a person cannot drive a truck if she doesn’t meet Federal Rules.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations Section 49CFR 391.41 provides medical examiners guidance to determine and qualify that a Commercial driver is “fit for duty” by using the following criteria. All businesses hiring truck drivers with CDLs are entitled under section 390.3 (d) to have more stringent health requirements for employment with their company.
- The driver cannot have a “medical history or clinical diagnosis of diabetes requiring insulin for control.” Blood sugar swings from diabetes can cause a driver to lose consciousness, become disoriented, fall asleep, and suffer neurologic symptoms (eye and peripheral neuropathy) making the driver unsafe. Imagine, if a driver has peripheral neuropathy in their feet (not being able to feel their feet), and they have to react quickly to an emergency, but they can’t feel the pressure they are placing on the brake.
- The driver cannot have a “medical history or clinical diagnosis of heart disease and/or cardiovascular condition.” This is heart disease can cause physical fatigue and inattention on the road.
- The driver cannot have a “medical history or clinical diagnosis of respiratory dysfunction” which can interfere with their ability to control, drive, and operate a truck safely. All of the COPDs (chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases) from bronchitis to emphysema decrease the body’s ability to use oxygen. Commercial drivers need to be alert all the time. An urgent driving situation can call for fast reflexes and demand increased oxygen. A driver who suffers from impaired breathing may not be able to react fast enough to a driving emergency.
- The driver cannot have a “medical history or clinical diagnosis of high blood pressure” which can interfere with their ability to control, drive, and operate a truck safely. Some blood pressure medication can impact the driver’s ability to stay alert on the roadway.
- The driver cannot have a “medical history or clinical diagnosis of rheumatic, arthritic, orthopedic, muscular, neuromuscular and/or vascular disease” which can interfere with their ability to control, drive, and operate a truck safely. Often these diseases are chronic, progressive, and debilitating.
- The driver cannot have a “medical history or clinical diagnosis of epilepsy, mental or psychiatric illness” which can interfere with their ability to control, drive, and operate a truck safely.
- The driver must have the ability to see at least 20/40 (Snellen), and be able to hear with or without a hearing aid.
You can look at all the health conditions identified in the Federal Regulations and see why they are a concern. They all focus on the truck driver’s ability to stay alert, focused and react quickly to hazards on the roadway.
Was the truck driver well-rested?
Some truckers get paid by the mile and others paid by the load. Either way, if they can travel a thousand miles in a shorter time, everybody (the trucker and the company) makes more money. Regulators and healthcare providers understand that fatigue on the roadway is a major factor in accidents.
Truckers average well over a hundred thousand miles a year of driving. What is different for the professional driver in terms of TIME is that even off-duty time is logged. In other words, what they are doing when they are not driving including not even working has to be documented. Think about it, if the truck driver wakes up at 7:00 am works all day in their yard around the house, and jumps in the truck at 9:00 pm to start work, haven’t they physically worked all day already?
The “hours of service” rules require trucker drivers to document of all their time on and off duty. Truckers must log (keep track) hours of sleep, rest, loading, unloading, driving, stopping, inspecting, fueling, and eating. Truckers hours of service must be strictly followed to make sure truck drivers on the road are well-rested and attentive.
Were Drugs and Alcohol Involved in the Crash?
In any accident, you have to look at whether the driver was under the influence of any drug (legal or illegal) that could impact alertness and the driver’s ability to react to foreseeable circumstances.
Truck drivers are not allowed to ingest any alcohol up to 4 hours before beginning their duties. These duties include “sensitive-safety” functions. When driving, a trucker is not allowed to have any substances in their system which could negatively impact or impair their ability to drive safely and/or perform any “sensitive safety” function.
When a Florida trucking accident lawyer evaluates the cause of a truck accident to determine if the Truck Driver was at fault, we ask these questions:
- Did the truck driver have a valid license?
- Was the truck driver medically cleared?
- Did the truck driver violate any rules of the road?
- Was the truck driver qualified and trained?
- Did the truck driver have the proper experience to haul the material?
- Was the truck driver properly rested?
- Did the truck driver ingest any improper substances?
Next, a Florida truck accident lawyer will look to see if the equipment contributed to the crash.
For years, routine inspections of trucks in Florida document that over 50% of the trucks on our roads violate one or more of the federal trucking rules.
Drivers and motor carriers are responsible for regular (systematic) inspection, repair, and maintenance of their trucks and trailers. Motor Carriers must have a written policy or plan in place for keeping up with the mechanical systems of every truck they own and operate. The scheduled maintenance on a truck must be in relation to the amount of use the truck gets. Makes sense, the more the truck is on the road, the more wear and tear, the more maintenance that should be performed.
The Government’s Role in Safety Checks
The purpose behind the Federal government enacting more stringent rules for those driving trucks, vans, and buses than cars was to ensure the safety of the state roads, U.S. Highways, and Interstate Highways in Florida. These laws are enforced by special agents of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle Transportation’s Office of Motor Carrier Compliance which are now a division of the FHP. They are authorized by law to enter any and all commercial trucks being operated within the state of Florida at any time and place. They will inspect the truck and driver to determine whether they are following the rules. Inspectors will review driver logs, take a look at the truck, and check for violations of Florida and Federal Rules. An inspection report called a Form MCS 63 or Driver Compliance Check will be used to record all information gathered at these inspections.
If the truck is out of compliance mechanically, for example its brakes are worn, the Inspector will pull the truck from the road, which is called “Out of Service.” This is a serious violation. This violation will be reported and logged into the CDLIS (Commercial Driver License Information System). If a truck driver is pulled from the road “Out of Service”, it can impact their CDL license.
Truck drivers and companies are responsible for adequate inspection, repair and maintenance. The truck will not be allowed back into service until all noted problems are repaired. This record of repair will become a permanent part of the truck and motor carrier’s file.
Again, you can understand why the rules need to be so strict. If a truck is traveling on I-75 at 65 mph with a load of 80,000 pounds, with faulty brakes, what happens if there is an emergency and the truck has to stop quickly.
Here are some of the questions that we ask to determine if the equipment was a contributing factor to a Florida Truck Accident Claim:
- Did the motor carrier and/or truck driver properly inspect, repair and maintain the truck?
- Were periodic inspections of the truck’s systems and parts documented?
- Were the braking systems on the trailer in good working order?
- Were the braking systems on the tractor in good working order?
Proving Fault or Responsibility for a Florida Truck Accident
Initially, we are tasked with investigating the accident and preserving any necessary evidence. A Florida trucking lawyer’s first task is to serve a preservation of evidence letter a/k/a spoliation letter to all the potential defendants in the case. This will include the driver, the motor-carrier, the insurance company if known, and any other known entity.
A typical preservation of evidence letter will state the following:
“We request that the following evidence, regarding the above noted crash/accident be preserved, and not destroyed, altered, or changed in any manner:”
- The tractor, trailer, and equipment involved in the crash;
- Bills of lading;
- Permits or licenses covering the tractor-trailer involved in the subject crash;
- The driver’s post-crash alcohol/drug testing results;
- The driver’s complete personnel file;
- The collision register;
- All GPS, OmniTRAC, QTRACS or any other data system for three months before the subject crash; etc.
Insurance Coverages Available for Your Florida Truck Accident Claim
Even though the accident wasn’t your fault, we still evaluate coverage that the injured person may have on their own. In Florida, there are three main types of auto insurance coverage.
Florida No-Fault (Personal Injury Protect)/PIP
Florida is a no-fault state, which may be confusing to a number of folks. Florida no-fault insurance is the first line of insurance to pay for medical expenses, and wage loss, regardless of who was at fault for the accident. That’s right. You were injured in an accident, it wasn’t your fault, and your insurance will pay up the first $10,000 for covered expenses.
Property Damage Insurance
Insurance coverage to pay for property damage (fix or replace vehicle) comes in two flavors: (1) property damage; and (2) collision. The purpose of property damage coverage is to pay the owner of another vehicle that you may have damaged in an accident that you caused. The purpose of collision insurance is to pay to fix or replace your vehicle regardless of fault. Even if you were not at fault for truck crash, it may be easier and speedier for you to go through your own insurance to get a new car than to wait for the trucking company’s insurance company to investigate and pay for your vehicle. It’s nice to have collision insurance because then you are not beholden to the other insurance company’s whims.
Bodily Injury/Uninsured Motorist
The third type of coverage is available to pay for injuries, pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life. If you caused the accident, your bodily injury coverage will pay for any injuries that the other driver sustained in the accident.
Uninsured motorist coverage is available to you if the other person didn’t have insurance or doesn’t have enough insurance to pay for your injuries, wage loss, pain and suffering.
Frequently, in Florida truck accident cases, there are multiple insurance companies or layers of coverage available. Under Federal and state law, trucking companies must have B.I. (bodily injury) insurance coverage.
Companies that have commercial vehicles must comply with minimum levels of Federal Financial Responsibility. Mandated insurance coverage is fairly extensive for all commercial vehicles. The limits of coverage are dependent on the type of vehicle and the specific cargo it is moving.
Compensation Available After A Florida Truck Accident
Economic damages are specific damages that a jury or judge can actually point to. These damages include medical and hospital expenses, lost wages, and other specific monies that have to be expended (i.e. modification of home (ramp), or hiring lawn maintenance).
Non-Economic/Pain and Suffering damages are only available in Florida if the injured person can show one of the following: (1) a permanent injury; (2) significant scarring; and (3) loss of a bodily function. This threshold is a trade-off for the no-fault payment of medical expenses.
In many of these cases, the trial strategy of the insurance company lawyers is to admit responsibility for the accident, and then challenge the threshold (permanent injury) requirement.
If a family member died as a result of the truck accident, the claim is a wrongful death claim. Florida has an elaborate wrongful death law. Where a personal injury case focuses on the damages to the injured person, a wrongful death action focuses on the damages to those who are left behind.
Compensation available in wrongful death for the Estate include:
- Medical expenses, if any;
- Funeral expenses
Compensation available in wrongful death for the survivors can include:
- Lost economic support;
- Loss of services; and
- Loss of companionship, care, guidance (if children are survivors)
If you or a family member has been injured in a Florida truck accident, contact our office to protect your rights and receive the compensation that you deserve.