Trucking Cases: What Every Attorney Needs to Know

By Neale deGravelles 

Trucking Cases: What Every Attorney Needs to Know

It may seem like trucking cases have much in common with regular auto cases, but trucking cases involve special safety regulations, unique industry safety and operational standards, a complex array of insurance issues, more complex crash dynamics and reconstruction issues, and a whole lot more.

The fact is that truck wrecks are not car wrecks. Commercial motor vehicles (CMV), including semi-trucks and buses, are heavier, larger, more dangerous, driven for longer hours, and are more strictly regulated than an ordinary car or pickup. These increased regulations set a standard of care that imposes responsibility, and therefore liability, for truck drivers and motor carriers that goes beyond the responsibility of an ordinary motorist.

Due to the difference in size and weight between commercial motor vehicles and ordinary passenger vehicles, the injuries in CMV crashes are far worse than in passenger vehicle crashes, especially for those in the passenger vehicle.

Here’s what you need to know about trucking cases to win.

Understanding Safety Regulations

With a truck wreck, there are often safety regulation violations by the truck driver and motor carrier that significantly created the hazard and was at least one, if not the primary, cause of the wreck. The jury charge question often comes down to a question of whether the fault of the motor carrier and its driver was “a contributing factor or cause of the injuries/death.”

Truck wreck cases are very fact specific, and there are many rules and regulations that can be used to show that a commercial driver violated their duty to the traveling public and that the driver and motor carrier should be rightfully held liable for all losses and harms their failures caused. The two primary sources for these rules are the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs), and State CDL Manuals. The FMCSRs were created to reduce the number of injuries, wrecks, and fatalities on American roads. 49 CFR §383.1. This is a powerful statement to any jury.

Other important sources for the rules serving as the basis for the “standard of care” that apply to commercial drivers and motor carriers include state laws, industry training publications, and motor carrier company rules and policies.

Winning the Case with Depositions

The deposition of the driver and the corporate representative are key to winning any trucking case. If done properly, the liability portion of your case should essentially be proven when these depositions are finished. Using the driver and corporate representative to illustrate exactly what a motor carrier should have done but did wrong, causing this loss, and how it could threaten the safety of a juror and their family, is a great way to convince the jury that a defendant company needs to be held accountable — manifesting in the form of a verdict in your client’s favor.

But preparation for the depositions is central to putting together your case. The first thing to remember when taking these depositions is that the case is often about the company, not about the driver.

The next thing to remember is that the story of the case starts long before the handful of seconds that make up the wreck sequence. Look back to when the motor carrier first made promises to get operating authority by its application to USDOT (OP-1 Form), first hired the driver, and first bought the tractor/trailer.

Proving Non-Economic Damages to a Jury

Damages in truck wrecks are often catastrophic. One needs only to look at the discrepancy in size and weight between a commercial motor vehicle and an ordinary passenger sedan to see why.

A fully loaded 18-wheeler can weigh up to forty times as much as your average passenger sedan. The amount of energy transferred into passenger vehicles, and therefore passengers, can lead to truly horrendous results. Traumatic brain injuries in truck wreck cases are commonplace but you’ll need thoughtful testimony from a qualified physician to prove them

Human harms damages, also called non-economic damages, can be equally tricky to prove at trial. By their very nature, human harms damages are those damages that do not come with a discernible amount attached to them. They are also, oftentimes, the most significant kind of damages, and careful thought must go into the presentation of such harms, losses and damages. Unless your client’s most significant injury is a physical one with obvious outward manifestations — such as heavy scarring from burns or missing limbs — strong visual evidence needs to be presented to explain to the jury why the plaintiff is significantly harmed. Medical illustrations, MRI film with obvious demonstrable injuries, x-rays showing screws and plates still inside a patient, or brain scans with clear images of bleeds and brain damage fill this need.