Trucking accidents involve complex legal issues and application of state and federal law. Most long-haul truck drivers carry commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) requiring extensive additional training and testing. Once the CDL is issued, the commercial driver is governed by laws that are significantly stricter, even when they are driving their personal automobile. For example, private drivers can be convicted of driving while impaired if they are found to have a BAC of .08 percent. Holders of a CDL would be convicted of DWI in their private vehicle with a BAC of .04 percent and a DWI in the commercial vehicle with a BAC of .01 percent.
Tractor-trailer drivers are governed by state traffic laws and by the federal motor carrier safety regulations (FMCSRs). The most common North Carolina traffic laws that govern truck drivers are as follows:
- N.C.G.S. 20-138—Impaired Driving In A Commercial Vehicle: For commercial drivers, the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration is .04 percent in private vehicles and .01 percent when driving a commercial truck. Federal regulations often require the driver to report voluntarily for BAC testing following an accident. If a sober driver fails to secure this testing, this failure can be admitted as evidence that impairment could have indeed been a factor leading to the collision.
- N.C.G.S. 20-140—Reckless Driving: This statute forbids driving “without due caution and circumspection and at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger or be likely to endanger any person or property.”
- N.C.G.S. 20-140.2—Overloaded Vehicle: Trucks are difficult to handle when cargo is unevenly loaded or overloaded. If cargo was insecure, out of balance, or overweight, this is a violation of our traffic law.
- N.C.G.S. 20-141—Speed Restrictions: Speed is often a factor in truck accidents. This statute requires the truck driver to obey all posted limits and prohibits the driver from driving at a speed that is greater than “reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing.” Thus, in rain or heavy traffic, speeding violations can occur even if the driver is traveling within the posted limit.
- N.C.G.S. 20-146—Drive on Right Side of Roadway: This statute requires the truck driver to maintain his or her proper lane of travel, to avoid improper lane mergers, and to remain on the right side of any divided road/highway.
- N.C.G.S. 20-148—Meeting of Vehicles: This statute requires vehicles approaching in opposite directions to avoid crossing center.
- N.C.G.S. 20-149—Overtaking a Vehicle: This statute requires a vehicle that is passing another to leave two feet of space while passing and to return to the right side/lane only when there is sufficient room to do so. This statute also requires the vehicle being passed to yield to the passing vehicle and to maintain speed to allow the pass to occur.
- N.C.G.S. 20-150—Limitation on Privilege of Overtaking/Passing: The passing vehicle can initiate a pass only if the oncoming lane is clear, only when the curve or grade of the road allows visibility five hundred feet ahead, and never at double-yellow centerlines or railway crossings.
- N.C.G.S. 20-151—Driver to Give Way to Overtaking Vehicle: If a driver is being passed, he or she must not speed up or act in a way to prevent being overtaken.
- N.C.G.S. 20-152—Following Too Closely: This is the most common cause of rear-end collisions. Trucks require greater stopping distances than private passenger autos, and truck drivers should be fully aware of the distance required to stop. When a vehicle is struck from behind, this law is the basis for all claims against the truck driver.
- N.C.G.S. 20-153—Turning at Intersections: This statute requires drivers turning right to remain as close to the right curb as possible and drivers turning left to yield to oncoming traffic and ensure that the turn can be made without interfering with the safe flow of traffic.
- N.C.G.S. 20-154—Signals on Starting, Stopping or Turning—This statute requires a vehicle intending to turn to use visible turn signals and to maintain the visible signal for two hundred feet prior to the intended maneuver whenever the speed limit is forty-five miles per hour or greater. Vehicles that stop must have proper brake lights and signals as well.
- N.C.G.S. 20-155—Right of Way: Drivers turning left must yield and give the right of way to oncoming vehicles and to pedestrians in crosswalks. Drivers entering from a driveway, parking area, alley, or side street must yield before entering the adjacent roadway. If two vehicles approach an intersection from different roads at the same time, the driver to the left must yield to the driver to the right.
- N.C.G.S. 20-158—Vehicle Control Signs or Signals: If the truck driver disobeyed any signs, painted lines, or traffic controls during the approach to the accident site, this statute provides the basis for legal liability.
- N.C.G.S. 20-161—Stopping on Highway Prohibited: This statute, coupled with similar federal regulations, prohibits stopping on the roadway and requires disabled vehicles to be moved (when possible) or clearly identified with warning flares, reflective triangles, etc.
Beyond these state traffic laws, the following Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations are commonly encountered in truck accident cases:
- F.M.C.S.R. 392.3—Ill or Fatigued Operator: This regulation prohibits the truck driver and the trucking company from continuing a trip when the driver’s ability or alertness is impaired or likely to become impaired because of illness, fatigue, or any other cause. There are strict rules governing the number of consecutive hours that a truck driver can legally remain on the road. Truck drivers are also required to maintain driver trip logs and all trip receipts (for meals, fuel, hotel, etc.) to prove that they took required breaks and did not remain on the road any longer than federal laws allow.
- F.M.C.S.R. 392.4—Drugs or Other Substances: No driver shall be on duty and possess, be under the influence of, or use any amphetamine, any narcotic drug or derivative thereof, or any other impairing substance.
- F.M.C.S.R. 392.5—Alcohol Prohibition: Under federal regulations, a truck driver cannot use alcohol within four hours before going on duty or use alcohol or have any measured alcohol concentration or detected presence of alcohol while operating or in physical control of a commercial vehicle.
- F.M.C.S.R.392.6—Schedules to Conform with Speed Limits: If the trucker was speeding, this regulation allows suit directly against the trucking company if the delivery and trip schedules impose deadlines that cannot be achieved without speeding.
- F.M.C.S.R. 392.7—Equipment Inspection and Use: This regulation requires the trucking company and the truck driver to inspect and ensure proper function of the service brakes, trailer brake connections, parking / hand brake, steering mechanism, lighting devices and reflectors, tires, horn, windshield wipers, rear-vision mirrors, and coupling devices.
- F.M.C.S.R. 392.9—Inspection of Cargo and Cargo Securement Devices: The truck driver and those involved in loading the cargo are governed by strict regulations that require careful strapping, stacking, balancing, and securing of all cargo before the journey begins. During the journey, the driver is also charged with the legal obligation to check and secure cargo.
- F.M.C.S.R. 392.14—Hazardous Driving Conditions: A truck driver is required to use “extreme caution” in hazardous conditions, such as snow, ice, sleet, fog, mist rain, dust, or smoke. If conditions are sufficiently dangerous, the truck driver is legally obligated to immediately discontinue travel and get off the road.
- F.M.C.S.R. 392.22—Emergency Signals, Stopped Vehicles: A truck driver is required to follow specific steps to alert approaching traffic whenever his or her truck is stopped upon the traveled portion of a highway or on the shoulder.
- Miscellaneous Regulations: The federal regulations impose strict guidelines for drivers (e.g., license requirements, training, log keeping, reporting) and for trucking companies (e.g., hiring requirements, driver record requirements, testing requirements, truck maintenance requirements, etc.).
Truck accident victims should research all applicable laws and identify each and every legal violation committed by the commercial driver and also any violations committed by the trucking company. Cumulative violations may support a claim for punitive damages. Also, if the trucking company pushes the driver to violate laws to meet cargo delivery deadlines, these facts significantly increase the settlement value or verdict range of the victim’s claims.
Current federal law requires a truck driver and motor carrier to carry at least $750,000.00 in liability insurance. This is a “per occurrence” limit, meaning that the coverage limit is the full amount available to pay for all property damage and injury claims for all victims. Many truck drivers and trucking companies will carry higher limits. Also, the truck and trailer may be separately registered and insured. This will double the amount of insurance money available to pay victims’ claims. In catastrophic injury cases involving a commercial truck, always explore the assets of the truck driver and his or her employer and identify umbrella liability insurance or any additional commercial insurance coverage available to fund victim losses. The policy covering the truck is often only the first layer of insurance coverage and the $750,000.00 may be insufficient to cover a serious injury claim.
Another additional payment source in trucking cases would be the “hidden defendant.” If the truck driver appears to be an independent owner-operator, careful investigation may reveal that he or she was employed by an outside entity. The company employing the driver may be held jointly liable for the victim’s accident claims. If the collision arose from negligent maintenance and the maintenance facility is independent from the truck driver and his or her employer, the maintenance facility may also be held responsible for payment of accident claims. If the collision occurred because of a defective component on the truck (e.g., faulty brakes), the manufacturer of the truck or component part should be involved in the suit as well. Securing payment from all possible sources will allow the victim to receive the funds he or she truly needs to confront and overcome serious injuries.
During my years as an adjuster, I had occasion to work with the on-call adjusting team for the insurance company’s trucking claims office. I saw firsthand how aggressively insurance carriers work to avoid responsibility for truck accidents. Insurance carriers ask truck drivers to report accident claims immediately from the collision scene. In fact, many truck drivers will report an accident to their insurance company before they call 911 to seek emergency assistance! In catastrophic cases, our adjusters would be paged and occasionally called to meet a chartered plane and fly in the middle of the night to an accident scene. Our orders were to secure statements from witnesses and victims to identify evidence that would allow us to reduce claims payments or deny victims’ claims outright. Trucking accidents often result in very serious injuries. This factor, coupled with the high amount of mandatory insurance, motivates insurance carriers to prioritize these claims. They are typically slow to accept legal liability, and they work hard to avoid full responsibility for victims’ losses.
The accident victim should also act immediately to protect all legal rights after an accident. The first few days following the truck accident can be critical. For example, if the truck driver is able to drive his or her truck after the collision, the speed and braking information recorded on the electronic control module (commonly referred to as the “black box”) can be easily erased. Black box data is typically stored with a sudden braking event. Unfortunately, subsequent sudden braking will erase the accident data. Most accidents involve sufficient brake force and speed chance to cause data to be recorded, including the truck’s speed during the minutes before the accident, cruise control and other settings, and the driver’s braking effort and force/speed at impact. This evidence may be critical to prove collision facts and driver negligence. The black box download must be conducted by a qualified expert, and the truck should also be carefully inspected for safety and equipment violations. The trucking company and insurance company hope that the victim will not ask for the inspection and download. In almost every truck accident involving severe injury, the time and expense involved are justified and the victim should immediately demand and secure this evidence.
Online research will help you to identify the trucking company and explore the size and nature of their trucking operation. Also, the federal DOT number associated with that particular motor carrier (trucking company) will be listed on the police report. For information about an individual trucking company or a motor carrier authorized by the federal Department of Transportation to carry cargo across state lines, visit www.safersys.org. With the DOT number in hand, this site allows you to review the motor carrier’s accident history, safety history, and insurance information. For further information on North Carolina truck accident law, visit www.carolinatrucklawyer.com.