Trucking companies are subject to strict rules regarding the inspection, maintenance, and repair of their vehicles. These laws serve the primary purpose of keeping dangerous trucks off the road. That's good for the rest of us drivers -- as long as those rules are enforced. When a tractor trailer causes a crash, its inspection records serve a valuable role in proving negligence, which is the key to a successful truck accident settlement or trial. To best use this evidence here, a Fort Worth injury attorney studies safety regulations and knows where to locate inspection reports, past violations, and the truck's and company's crash history.
Truck companies have a duty to maintain safe vehiclesThe Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has the authority to pass and enforce maintenance and inspection regulations concerning commercial vehicles. These trucking regulations apply to motor vehicles that weigh more than 10,000 lbs. or more and to trucks that carry hazardous materials. Any company, whether a one-man operation or a large multinational corporation, is responsible for inspecting and maintaining its vehicles and repairing problems before putting its trucks back on the road. The company is also required to keep its records for one year and make them available to inspectors. Failure to do so is a violation of the FMCSA regulations.
Companies are often not liable for negligence of independent contractorsHo, ho, ho. Tis the season when we get together with our families, go to church, and of course shop. More than ever, that means we buy items online and get them quickly delivered to our door steps. Amazon hires thousands of delivery drivers under a program it calls Amazon Flex. These people have the flexibility to work seven days a week and as many hours as he or she can handle - even after working all day somewhere else. But it is Amazon which gets the real advantage of flexibility. The company is able to increase its pool of drivers without paying job benefits, health insurance, and vehicle liability insurance. How does it do this? Flex drivers are somehow not classified as employees but as independent contractors. So who is liable when there delivery truck drivers cause a wreck? This issue is winding its way through different courts with predictably conflicting results. The Texas Supreme Court rendered a decision on a related case in 2015. The problem is that allowing delivery drivers to be classified as independent contractors shifts liability and compensation from the company to the individual who may not even have auto insurance. If he does, you can bet it is the minimum coverage. In Texas, that is only $30,000 per one person injured, $60,000 for everyone injured (excepting the driver) and $25,000 for all vehicle damage (excepting the truck). That's usually not enough money to pay for everyone's medical bills, lost wages, and other damages. This disturbing trend is not limited to Amazon. FedEd, UPS, WalMart and other retailers and delivery services also rely on a fleet of independent contractors to make their deliveries. Oh, Uber and Lyft do this too, but that's a separate story that happens frequently in our new "gig economy."
Faulty brakes, overloaded cargo, under inflated tires and sleep-deprived drivers are truck accidents waiting to happen. These are the very safety issues targeted by rigorous Texas Department of Public Safety inspections. DPS officers inspect trucks and drivers and issue decals to indicate the fleet is safe and are required to take unsafe tractor-trailers out of service. Or at least that's what usually happens. But recently the owner of a Dallas trucking company paid off a dishonest DPS inspector in exchange for the required safety decals. The company claims to be “frequently recognized for its integrity and reliability” and that “safety is our biggest concern.” But instead of fixing any safety violations, the owner forked over $20,000 in bribes to keep his dangerous fleet of tractor-trailers on the road. Let's hope that Cruz and Sons Transportation is the only truck company which has done this. Texans should be angry about this bribery. It's bad enough that one of our public officials is being paid off, but worse that he potentially put our lives at risk. These inspections are crucial to keep Texas roads safe.
Smokey and the Bandit mentality will stop.Starting next month, all trucking companies must start complying with the Electronic Logging Device (ELD) rule. While this might seem like a technical issue that only people in the trucking industry would care about, it's an important safety improvement for all of us. You might not remember the 1977 comedy Smokey and the Bandit. Audiences cheered as the truck driver raced against time and outwitted the police to get beer from Texarkana to Atlanta within 28 hours. He made it with only 10 minutes to spare, then won a big bet by continuing driving to Boston in 18 hours. Today drivers often race against the clock to get their load delivered by unreasonable deadlines. And they may not stop to take a much-needed rest break either. But tired truck drivers often cause real life tragedies. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) found that 13 percent of commercial drivers were fatigued when they crashed their trucks -- so you know the number is much higher. The FMCSA addressed this risk factor by strengthening hours of service (HOS) rules which restrict the number of hours a truck driver is allowed to drive and work each week and mandates rest breaks. The HOS regulations also require drivers to maintain logbooks that demonstrate they are in compliance. But skirting these rules has been far too easy.
So why aren’t big-rig safety features mandatory?Passing a tractor-trailer on a highway can be a scary experience. What if you are in the driver's blind spot, he switches lanes, and crashes into your car? It happens all the time. Equally nerve-racking is seeing an 18-wheeler in your rear view mirror bearing down on you. What if that driver doesn't brake in time and hits your vehicle with his enormous tractor-trailer? New technology could make these concerns a thing of the past. The AAA Foundation just released an enlightening study that concluded four technological features could prevent 77,077 accidents that cause over 23,000 injuries and 500 fatalities every year. This is exciting news -- if trucking companies actually use this technology.
Truck driver Rene Flores drove long past the hours allowed by law, then he doctored his logbooks to cover it us. And his employers knew. The truck driver told his story to a journalist at USA Today, claiming he was fired when he complained. Of course, his employer tells a different story, putting the blame back on the driver. I have seen this type of situation in my law practice many times. Under federal and Texas laws, both driver and employer are liable for violations of hours of service laws and for injuries caused by the inevitable wreck. That is why I conduct a thorough investigation into the driver’s conduct and the employer’s policies and practices. Does the company set unrealistic delivery schedules? Or employ an unfair pay scheme that encourages its drivers to work dangerously long hours? Does the employer know about the hours of service violations? Is the trucker’s job threatened if he rocks the boat? In a shocking number of cases, the answers to all these questions is “yes.”
Actress Jayne Mansfield was famous for her sexy image. She starred in many movies in the 50's and 60's, won acting awards, and was one of the first Playmates. The Dallas resident studied at UT and SMU where I graduated in the 70's. But Mansfield is tragically remembered for the tragic tractor-trailer accident that killed her in 1967. Mansfield was a passenger in a Buick that slammed into the back of an 18 wheeler. The car slid underneath the trailer’s carriage and killed her and two other adult passengers. She was only 34. Two other people died but miraculously her two children were not injured. Her legacy survives today, not only in film and photographs, but every time you see a tractor-trailer. Her crash directly led to regulations requiring installation of red and white bars at the rear of semi-trucks. "Mansfield bars" are required on all tractor-trailers to stop cars from sliding underneath the truck. But here’s the problem. Mansfield bars prevent under-ride in a medium impact rear-end collisions, such as occurred in Mansfield’s case. However, the bars aren't often strongenough to stop high-impact crashes. Nor are they required on the sides of trucks, so they don't stop cars from sliding under from the side either. Here's a photo from a case I handled where my client was lucky to survive a crash with an 18 wheeler that suddenly cut in front of her. Under-ride crashes are exactly as awful as the word implies. During a collision with a tractor-trailer, the car slides underneath the semi, either sheering off or crushing the top of the car. The occupants of the car don’t stand a chance. But what if these under-ride collisions could be close to totally avoided?
Congress should put public safety above trucking industry demandsTrucking companies want bigger trucks and unfortunately many national lawmakers agree with them. Trucking companies want to increase 18-wheeler weight limits from 80,000 to 91,000 pounds on interstate highways, an increase of 14 percent. After a similar bill was defeated in 2015, sponsors promised to reintroduce this bad idea again this year. Increasing truck weight limits flies against all reason. Tractor-trailer accident deaths jumped 26 percent between 2009 and 2015, a frightening trend that shows no sign of slowing down. In 2015, truck accident fatalities increased by eight percent from the previous year to 4,050 people. We should expect our lawmakers to strengthen safety regulations, not weaken them.
On Friday the Dallas County Medical Examiner released its autopsy report that revealed that the truck driver who caused this crash was high on meth. The Mt. Pleasant High track team was headed home after a meet recently when a tractor-trailer crossed the center line and headed straight for their bus. The track coach fortunately swerved out of the way, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision. However the assistant coach following the bus in this car was struck head on and tragically died. The school bus toppled over and skidded across the road, resulting in injuries to 18 students and the coach driving the bus. The 18-wheeler driver also died.