A logging truck struck an Amish buggy, killing a woman and her son. There was a family of five inside the buggy at the time. A man and a child suffered serious injuries that required air transport to regional hospitals. Another child—a boy—obtained treatment for his injuries from an area hospital. The truck driver reportedly cooperated with authorities in the investigation as to how the accident occurred.
Each year in the United States, more than 4,000 people die in traffic accidents that involve commercial trucks. Roughly two thirds of those who die are the occupants of smaller vehicles that collide with large trucks, and another 15 percent are pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists.
Immediate Accident Reporting
Pennsylvania law requires that all motorists involved in a fatal accident remain at the scene, exchange information (if possible), and render aid to injured parties. The term “render aid” does not mean that anyone must necessarily perform life-saving medical procedures on someone who has sustained injuries. Rendering aid means doing anything to help, including calling 911 and requesting an ambulance.
Pennsylvania law also requires that all fatal accidents be reported to authorities within five days. Of course, as a practical matter this almost always happens immediately, because someone calls 911 and police officers come to the scene and take a report.
Because the accident involves a commercial vehicle, the law also requires other reporting. If the commercial truck carried passengers or household goods, then the carrier must file a complete report within 30 days to the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement. Because the accident involved a fatality, a report must also be made immediately by telephone to the Motor Carrier Enforcement Section. Property and charter bus carriers must keep all records pertaining to the accident for a period of one year and must make these records available to a Public Utilities Commission enforcement officer upon request.
The Initial Investigation
When police respond to the scene of an accident, they typically interview drivers, passengers, and any witnesses; take photographs of the scene; and prepare a rough diagram of how they believe the accident unfolded. They compile this information into a police report, which may reflect an initial assessment of who was at fault for the crash.
That determination of fault often depends on the police officer’s assessment of the factors that contributed to the fatal truck accident, which may include:
- Distracted driving: Distractions to drivers are sometimes visual, meaning they draw the driver’s eyes from the road; manual, meaning they cause the driver to take his or her hands from the wheel; or cognitive, meaning they take the driver’s attention from the task of driving. Some types of distractions for truck drivers include texting and other cell phone use, eating or drinking, adjusting vehicle or GPS controls, completing the paperwork that drivers must submit to get paid for delivering shipments, visiting with passengers or co-drivers in the truck, or external distractions such as billboards, construction zones, or other vehicles on the roadway.
- Alcohol and drug impairment: Although regulations subject truck drivers to regular and random alcohol and drug testing, some drivers risk their commercial driver license by driving drunk or impaired by drugs anyway. Alcohol and drugs can dangerously erode the skills a truck driver needs to operate a motor vehicle safely, including the ability to steer or brake effectively, to maintain one’s own travel lane, to keep track of other vehicles on the road, and to make good decisions.
- Fatigued driving: By regulation, truck drivers must also take regular breaks and may only drive for up to 11 hours a day without taking an extended break for sleep. Fatigued driving produces deficits similar to alcohol impairment in the skills needed for driving. It poses a particular risk for truck drivers, who drive for long stretches and work irregular schedules under tight deadlines that often require them to drive at times when their body thinks they should be sleeping. They also suffer from relatively poor health. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration—the agency tasked with regulating the trucking industry—has found that nearly one-third of all truck drivers suffer from sleep apnea, a medical condition in which an individual stops breathing for brief periods during sleep. This pause in breathing disrupts the sleep cycle and causes chronic fatigue, even when an individual “sleeps” for the recommended 7-9 hours.
- Getting lost: Truck drivers must often transport cargo over unfamiliar roads. A lost truck driver risks getting distracted behind the wheel, and may attempt risky driving maneuvers when he needs to change course.
- Lack of proper training: Truck drivers must complete training and education before they can get a license to drive a big rig. Unfortunately, driver shortages and tight shipping deadlines can result in trucking companies placing drivers behind the wheel who have not received proper training. Inexperienced truckers make mistakes that cause accidents.
- Improper maintenance: Commercial trucks can travel thousands of miles in a single trip. Over the course of those long miles, equipment breaks down. Large trucks need regular maintenance to remain in safe operating condition. Trucks with balding tires, worn-out brakes, or leading hydraulics pose a high risk of causing a fatal accident.
- Defective vehicle parts: Truck drivers and the transportation companies that they work for are not the only ones tasked with keeping the vehicles safe. Manufacturers and distributors of trucks and truck parts also have a responsibility to ensure that the products they place on the roadways are free of defects that could cause a fatal accident.
Police cannot always determine the cause of the crash or the presence of any of these contributing factors, however. Sometimes it takes careful investigation and forensic analysis to uncover a truck driver’s inattention, or an unsafe level of wear-and-tear on a truck part. So, although the police report represents an important element of the investigation of the causes of a truck accident, it rarely constitutes the last word on the subject. Both private investigators and public agencies may uncover additional facts to help explain the factors that led to a fatal truck crash.
A Wrongful Death Lawsuit
A fatal large truck accident often triggers a personal injury lawsuit for wrongful death. In Pennsylvania, the family members of an individual killed in a truck accident typically have the right to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit for money damages whenever the death resulted from the “wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another person.”
Of course, money cannot bring back a deceased loved one. However, in our civil court system, money damages represent the only means we have of remedying the harm done in a fatal truck accident. The money generated by a wrongful death lawsuit, which gets paid to the deceased person’s surviving family members in the manner dictated by Pennsylvania probate law, can help to replace the victim’s income and provide much-needed financial support when coping with a tragic loss of life.
In a wrongful death lawsuit, the family members of the victim may seek to recover money to compensate them for:
- Funeral and burial expenses paid by the estate or by specific beneficiaries.
- Medical expenses for the treatment of the deceased’s final injuries, including transportation by ground or air to the hospital from the accident scene, emergency services rendered at the scene or in the emergency department, hospitalization, services rendered by the treating physician, surgical services, and medication.
- Expenses incurred through administration of the estate.
- Lost wages from the time of the injury until the time of death.
- Loss of future earnings that the deceased would have been expected to accrue during his or her working years, if he or she had lived out the entire course of a career.
- The value of household services that were previously completed by the deceased.
- The loss of comfort, companionship, and guidance provided by the deceased toward his or her family members.
- Physical and emotional pain and suffering experienced by the deceased’s family members due to the death.
There is no guarantee that any particular wrongful death action arising out of a fatal truck accident will result in the recovery of all (or any) of the damages above. Every case has distinct facts that determine its final outcome. The best way for a family to determine the scope and nature of damages it might receive in a wrongful death action is to consult with an experienced truck accident injury attorney.
Parties Who May Owe Damages
To obtain compensation through a wrongful death lawsuit arising out of a fatal truck accident, the lawyer for the grieving family must prove that one or more individuals or entities have legal liability for the crash and resulting death.
Establishing legal liability means proving:
- That someone owed the deceased a duty of care. A duty of care is an obligation not to make decisions or engage in actions that put someone else at an unreasonable risk of harm. In the context of a truck accident, for example, truckers and others on the road owe each other a duty not to drive in a manner that unreasonably increases the risk of an accident. Likewise, trucking companies owe the public a duty of care not to send unsafe trucks out on the road.
- Someone breached that duty of care. A breach of a duty of care means making a decision or taking an action that puts someone else at an unreasonable risk of harm. For example, a trucker breaches a duty of care by driving too fast for road conditions. Similarly, a trucking company breaches a duty of care by failing to maintain its fleet of trucks in safe operating condition.
- The breach caused harm. If someone’s breach of a duty of care contributes to the cause of a fatal truck accident, then that person or entity faces legal liability for damages in a wrongful death lawsuit.
An experienced wrongful death attorney understands the importance of reviewing the facts of a fatal truck accident in detail to determine who might have a legal liability to the grieving family for damages.
To identify all of the parties with potential legal liability, the lawyer may dig into:
- The accident report from the police officer who initially investigated the incident.
- Records of the truck driver’s previous driving history, medical history, education and training, and hours of service log.
- The results of drug and alcohol testing performed on the driver immediately after the crash.
- The maintenance schedule and records for the truck, as well as reports from visual inspections of the truck conducted by the driver before taking to the road.
- Any proof of defects with the truck itself or its parts.
Investigating these and other facts may reveal not just one, but several parties with legal liability to the family of the victim of a fatal truck crash.
Those parties might include:
- The truck driver, if his careless or reckless actions caused the fatal crash.
- The trucker’s employer, particularly if it failed to train the trucker in safe driving practices, or failed to respond to warning signs that the trucker posed a hazard to others.
- A truck maintenance contractor who failed to perform required repairs on a truck that would have prevented a mechanical failure that caused the deadly accident.
- The manufacturer or shipper of the truck or truck parts, if a mechanical defect factored into the cause of a crash.
- Other drivers. Sometimes, fault for a fatal truck accident lies with drivers of other vehicles, whose actions lead to a chain reaction and a fatal truck collision.
These are just examples, of course. Every truck accident has its own unique circumstances that determine who may have legal liability for the tragic deaths it causes. To learn about who may have liability for a fatal truck accident that caused tragedy in your life, contact an experienced truck accident injury lawyer today for a free case consultation.