Promoting Safer Trucking in Maine
Maine’s unique geography and geopolitical boundaries necessitate heavy reliance on trucking to keep our economy moving and to keep food and other goods available and in our stores. However, because of their massive size and limited maneuverability, trucks pose special risks on the roadways. Every year, there are over 1,000 crashes involving commercial vehicles on Maine’s roads. With increasing economic
pressures and competition, this number is likely to increase. In addition, regulations that help promote a safer trucking industry are being threatened in the current political environment. We cannot prevent all crashes. But by litigating cases involving injury caused by the operation of large trucks, we have the ability as trial lawyers to help enforce and extend necessary safety rules and to see that victims of drivers who violate these rules, as well as victims of other dangerous industry practices, are fairly compensated.
Keys to Preparing a Case
To successfully litigate trucking cases, it is necessary to understand all applicable rules and regulations and how violations of these may have contributed to a particular crash. These cases typically involve complex sets of federal and state trucking regulations, codified by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and as promulgated by Maine’s Department of Transportation. The more “common sense” rules of the road (some of which have been codified in Maine law, or in federal rules) also come into play. Identifying the case-relevant rules early on, through the help of investigators and appropriate experts, is key to countering an expected aggressive defense. Being able to neutralize what the Defense may perceive as a strength—or even affirmatively weaponizing it—can turn a presumptively difficult case into a winning case.
Crash with a Logging Truck
Recently we represented a woman who was seriously injured in a crash with a logging truck. The trucker was on his way home, hauling an empty logging trailer behind his tractor, both of which he would park at his home. He lived in a rural area on a two-lane, straight stretch of road with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour. It was well after dark and there were no streetlights. The trucker pulled past his driveway, which was on the other side of the roadway, and with his trailer across the lane of oncoming traffic he began to back into his driveway. As he proceeded, the trailer, illuminated by reflectors, was perpendicular across the road and blocking the oncoming lane of traffic. The tractor, with its headlights on, was facing toward the traffic in the oncoming lane. As this was happening, our client was approaching in the oncoming lane. Unable to see the trailer or appreciate the hazard ahead, she continued on her way and, without taking any evasive action, crashed into the side of the trailer. It took first responders over an hour and a half to extricate her from her vehicle.
From the outset, the Defense considered this a frivolous case and offered no money prior to our filing a lawsuit. After all, the trailer was supposedly there to be seen and it was, they maintained, our client who had crashed into the trailer. The Defense’s response to our lawsuit was predictable: our client must have been driving too fast; she must have been distracted; she must have seen the trailer; and thus her claim is barred by her own fault. Relying on what we had learned from both the police investigation and our private investigation, we initially hired an accident reconstructionist and a trucking expert to better understand what had happened in an effort to confirm our initial analysis of the truck driver’s negligence. He made an improper left-hand turn while backing, in violation of 29-A M.R.S.A. § 2060(2); and he failed to yield the right-of-way to my client, in violation of 29-A M.R.S.A. § 2053(1), thus blocking the oncoming lane with his trailer.
It is because of this type of hazard that Maine’s Commercial Driver License manual and safety classes caution drivers about backing their rigs and recommend that they do so only when absolutely necessary. We argued that there was no justification for his doing so in nighttime conditions, particularly without any clear warnings on his part, such as reflective cones, signage, flares, or someone to “flag.” We were able to determine that there was ample room in the trucker’s own driveway to perform the maneuver safely, away from other vehicles on the road. The only reason for him to back in was to make it easier for him to get back on the road again.
Responding to Allegations of Comparative Fault
The more difficult issue that we had to confront was the defense of our client’s comparative fault. Why didn’t our client see the trailer in time to avoid it? Why shouldn’t her comparative fault be a bar to any right of recovery? To answer these questions, we retained a nationally renowned expert in human factors who specializes in the operation of motor vehicles with a particular focus on drivers’ night vision. We asked this expert to help us counter the defense of comparative fault and turn it into our own affirmative narrative.
Because conspicuity issues are particularly important in nighttime conditions, Federal regulations require trailers to be equipped with side marker amps and retro-reflective taping to increase conspicuity. See 49 U.S.C. § 571.108(S188.8.131.52.2), 49 CFR § 393.11. Post-crash inspection of the trailer revealed that it was in compliance with these regulations. But what we learned from our human factors expert was that, given the angle of the trailer’s position across the road (approximately 45 degrees), the retro-reflective taping would not have been illuminated by our client’s headlights until she was about 100 feet away. Even at the lawful speed that she was driving, there would not have been enough time for her to perceive a hazard in the road, react to it, and avoid it. At the posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour, our client would have been traveling at 66 feet per second, and would have had just over 1.5 seconds to perceive the hazard, react to the hazard, and apply the brakes or take other evasive action. The stopping distance alone at that speed, even if she could instantly react, would not have stopped her in time to avoid the crash.
What the Client Saw
On the backdrop of this nighttime event, the small amber lights on the trailer would have appeared as random points of light that might have been anything. In contrast, the bright headlights of the jackknifed tractor appeared to be lights from a vehicle in the oncoming lane, leaving our client with the impression that the truck was just another approaching vehicle. The relative brightness of the truck’s headlights would have overpowered the limited lighting from the trailer, overcoming any other visual cues or warnings of the hazard. The human factors expert further explained that because of our client’s normal expectancy interest that vehicles would not be stopped in the middle of the roadway, by the time her closing speed would have led her to realize that the truck was not moving, it would have been too late to make any evasive action.
During the daytime, the trailer would, of course, have been clearly visible from quite a substantial distance and it then would have been incumbent upon our client to take steps to avoid it. However, at nighttime the variables are different and visibility issues increase the amount of time it takes to perceive and react to a hazard on the roadway, particularly when the situation is at odds with the driver’s expectancy interest.
Reconstructing and Understanding the Crash
Litigating trucking cases can be a challenging and difficult endeavor that requires clear understanding of the issues and the use of all necessary resources. Having command of the rules and regulations is a big step toward identifying and establishing negligence and overcoming the defense of comparative fault. Associating with the right experts, which may be expensive, and synthesizing the information into a coherent, compelling narrative for demand negotiations or trial presentation are key steps to help ensure that safety rules can be articulated clearly and concisely. This helps judges and juries understand the issues so that those operating trucks in an unsafe and dangerous manner are held accountable, and that people hurt because of such behavior are fairly compensated.
In the end, our approach and strategy led to the Defense’s decision to avoid trial, and to settle favorably for our client. Through the litigation process, our client’s rights were protected and we took a big step in holding others accountable by reinforcing the safety rules in Maine.