Big Trucks and Dangerous Lane Changes: Who’s Responsible if They Don’t See You?

by annbailey on May 25, 2013

Millions of motor vehicle collisions occur every year in the United States. Most of these involve few, if any, injuries. However, when there is a significant size disparity between two vehicles, motorists can be severely injured. When a motor vehicle collides with a truck, the insurer of the at-fault party will be liable for damages; if the at-fault party has no insurance, the at-fault party will be personally liable for the damages. Who the at-fault party is in a collision depends upon the nature of that collision.

Truck Driver Inattentiveness

Driving a tractor-trailer is not like driving a sedan. With its massive size, plentiful blind spots, and long braking distances, trucks have a higher potential for causing greater damage than a passenger vehicle if mishandled. Avoiding a collision in a truck requires constant vigilance. Unfortunately, some truck drivers falsify their federally mandated logbooks, drive while intoxicated, or simply fail to notice other vehicles while changing lanes.

If a truck driver collides with another vehicle due to inattentiveness, the truck driver will be liable for negligence. Negligence occurs where one breaches a duty of care owed to another party, which causes an injury. Motorists owe other motorists and society at large a duty of care to obey all traffic laws and drive in a reasonable and safe manner. Failing to look before changing lanes or tailgating other motorists is unsafe conduct that can expose the actor to liability in the event of a collision.

Many tractor-trailers are owner operated, meaning that the individual who drives the truck is the same as the owner of the truck. If the truck’s owner is different from the truck driver, the truck driver’s employer may also be liable for damages. Employers are vicariously liable for the tortious actions of their employees while those employees are acting within the course and scope of their employment. If an employee who is hauling product for a trucking firm causes harm through his own negligence, the trucking firm is liable for the damages, even in the absence of any negligence on the firm’s part.

Of course, the firm itself may be negligent in hiring improperly licensed or inadequately supervised drivers. In such cases, with the help of a trucking accident lawyer, damages beyond the standard compensation for medical bills and lost wages may also be available. Punitive damages are damages that are designed to punish a party for wrongdoing and may be imposed in the event of wanton or reckless conduct. If a trucking firm deliberately flouts the law and hires improperly trained drivers, a plaintiff may be able to pursue punitive damages on top of compensatory damages, which can greatly exceed the cost of the original injury.

The Tailgating Motorist

Not every accident between a passenger car and a large commercial vehicle involves fault on the part of the commercial driver. Some motorists unwisely follow very closely behind large semi trucks in an attempt to improve their fuel economy or avoid excessive wind turbulence on long journeys. When the driver of a passenger vehicle follows closely behind a tractor-trailer, the driver of the smaller vehicle often cannot see road conditions in advance of the truck; if the truck driver must suddenly brake, the motorist may have no chance to react in time to avoid a collision.

While motorists have slightly different licensing requirements and drive different vehicles, they owe other motorists a similar duty of care to truck drivers. Motorists who rear-end another vehicle due to their own negligence will be liable for the damages. They will be liable for any injuries to the truck’s driver or to their passengers. However, in the context of a collision with a large commercial vehicle, the damages may be confined to the negligent party and his or her vehicle; most tractor-trailers have bars protruding beneath the rear of the vehicle to prevent damage to loading docks, which can also prevent vehicles from severely damaging the truck in the event of a rear-end collision.

Third Party Negligence

In some cases, neither party to a collision demonstrates negligence prior to an accident. Many collisions result when a negligent motorist brakes suddenly, swerves, obstructs the roadway, or has a large foreign object fall off the rear of his or her vehicle, creating a hazardous condition for all other motorists on the road. When this happens, motorists behind the negligent party have little choice but to employ an evasive maneuver of their own, like sudden braking or swerving, which can result in a collision with another vehicle.

If a truck swerves to avoid a collision and collides with an innocent motorist, who is responsible for that accident will vary depending upon the circumstances. In general, the same rules apply; one has a duty to maintain their lane and not sideswipe other motorists. The difference is that checking one’s blind spot before reacting to an immediate hazard is not always possible. However, this matters surprisingly little; motorists should understand where vehicles are around them at all times and should not be surprised to see a vehicle alongside them.

In theory, if the negligent third party motorist who caused the hazardous condition can be identified, he or she is likely to be held financially responsible for the accident. In practice, this is often difficult; if the motorist leaves the scene of the accident or even remains blissfully unaware that he or she has caused an accident at all, the party may not be identified. This may leave the two parties to a collision with their own injuries to pursue claims against one another. When dealing with claims for negligence, courts will generally assign liability to the party who was in the best position to prevent the accident from occurring. That will be the party who abruptly left his or her lane and sideswiped the other party.

Motorists should always exercise due care when driving around large commercial vehicles. Safe driving requires maintaining a safe distance and avoiding travel in blind spots whenever practical. However, appropriate driving habits are not always adequate to prevent accidents. Careless operators of commercial vehicles can cause significant harm to other motorists due to the size of their vehicles and should be held to account for their actions. If you or anyone you know has been injured in an accident with a large commercial vehicle, seek legal counsel as soon as possible.

These tips for avoiding collisions with large trucks come from Ann Bailey, an experienced highway car driver. Legal help from a trucking accident lawyer such as The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C., is in order for anyone who has been involved in a collision with a big rig, whatever the circumstances of fault.

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