Benjamin R. Gideon, trial lawyer and partner at Berman & Simmons

Commercial Truck Accidents: Using Government Regulations and Oversight to Prove Your Case

The unique risks of driving a large commercial truck and the complex regulatory oversight of the trucking industry make handling a commercial truck accident case significantly different from handling a case involving only passenger cars. A commercial truck travelling a Maine road may weigh as much as twenty tons. This size and weight alone can turn a low-speed collision into a catastrophic or even fatal event. Collisions with tractor trailer trucks cause approximately 5,000 deaths per year in the U.S. The truck’s size and weight also make it more difficult for the truck driver to take evasive action or avoid collision.

Federal and state governments regulate and oversee the trucking industry in an attempt to protect the public from these risks. When a collision occurs, the regulations and standards are critical to proving the negligence of the truck driver and the motor carrier. Although the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) apply only to tractor trailers moving in interstate commerce, they arguably set a standard of care for all drivers and motor carriers. Under authority of the Maine Motor Vehicle Code, the Maine State Police have adopted the federal regulations almost wholesale, with a few exemptions for intrastate commerce. The regulations and other authority provide detailed requirements for maintenance, inspection, and operation of commercial trucks that can prove helpful in discovering the cause of a collision and proving a driver’s or motor carrier’s negligence.

Investigation and Discovery
Motor carrier safety regulations require that truckers keep extensive documentation that can provide important clues in investigation and discovery. When a collision is due to driver error or inattention, it may be helpful to obtain the records of duty status, also known as driving logs, which document the hours a driver was on duty and the number of miles driven. If the driver was in violation of regulatory limits on his hours of service, this could be evidence that he was fatigued and that driver impairment played a role in the collision. Even if fatigue plays no role in a case, a driver’s chronic violation of hours of service regulations raises an issue whether the motor carrier was negligent in hiring, training, or supervising an unsafe and noncompliant truck driver.

If the collision was caused by mechanical failure, for instance, brake failure, important clues might be found in the reports each driver is required to submit at the end of each shift on the mechanical condition of the tractor trailer. The report must list every defect that would affect the safe operation of the vehicle, and the motor carrier must respond to each listed defect by writing on the report that the defect was repaired, or that repair was unnecessary. Motor carriers are also required to perform regular inspection and maintenance of the truck and typically maintain a maintenance log for each truck that can provide clues about the truck’s condition at the time of the collision.

Investigation by the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Arm of the Maine State Police can yield important documentation about the condition of the tractor trailer. After a significant collision involving a commercial truck, this arm of the State Police will typically perform a Level 1 mechanical inspection of the vehicle. The trooper will document whether key components, like the connection between the tractor and the trailer and the adjustment of the brakes, comply with the North American Standard Out-of-Service Criteria. These standards, promulgated by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a coalition of industry and law enforcement professionals, determine when a truck is so poorly maintained it must be kept off the road until repaired. Measurements and observations taken by the State Police during this investigation can provide key information about the mechanical condition of the truck at the time of the collision that could be helpful to your expert accident reconstructionist.

Proving Negligence
The regulations and standards described above, as well as other guidelines, can be used to set the standard of care in a trucking collision case. In a case involving mechanical failure, federal and state regulations hold a motor carrier responsible to ensure that all “parts and accessories shall be in safe and proper operating condition at all times.” The motor carrier is responsible for systematically inspecting and maintaining the vehicle, and its employees who perform the inspection and maintenance must be knowledgeable about the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. The North American Standard Out-of-Service Criteria can also be used as evidence of negligence, when the adjustment of the brakes or condition of the mechanical systems at the time of the collision violated those standards.

When a driver’s conduct is at issue, the Maine Commercial Driver License Manual can be helpful evidence to support the driver’s negligence. The Manual covers such topics as how to test the tractor and trailer brakes before starting a trip, how to take evasive action in certain situations, and the distance required to stop a tractor trailer travelling at a given rate of speed. Testimony of a Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles employee to authenticate the Manual can also lend weight and credibility to an argument that the truck driver should know and be held to the guidelines in the Manual.

The driver is responsible not only for his own actions in operating the tractor trailer; he also shares responsibility for the condition of the vehicle. Before operating a commercial truck, the driver must satisfy himself that the truck is “in safe operating condition.” The Maine Commercial Driver License Manual contains a description of the necessary steps in a driver’s pre-trip inspection of the vehicle.

Operation of a commercial motor vehicle requires specialized training, knowledge and skills far beyond that necessary to operate a passenger car. The commercial driver’s license holder is required to have knowledge of hazardous materials, the implications of low pressure air readings in a vehicle, the relationship between cargo loading and vehicle control, and skills that include adequate inspection of air brake systems and emergency maneuvers. An instruction that the driver is required to exercise the skill and knowledge of a professional commercial truck driver may be helpful to educate a jury, which might otherwise compare the truck driver’s actions to their own driving experiences.

Large commercial trucks pose a significant risk to other drivers on the road. Understanding these risks and the governmental regulation and oversight of the commercial truck drivers and motor carriers is key to successfully trying a commercial truck collision case.

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Berman & Simmons is the leading personal injury and medical malpractice law firm in Maine. For more than 100 years, our trial attorneys have represented those who have been injured or harmed by the actions of others. These personal injury cases range from car and truck accidents to the most complex litigation involving defective products and malpractice by healthcare providers. We are known as the firm that will stand up and fight for injured Mainers in disputes against big corporations and powerful interests.