After a trucking accident, who is liable for the damages? Is the driver, an employer, or a company financially accountable?
It is not an easy matter to figure out financial responsibility in the aftermath of an accident involving a delivery truck, an 18-wheeler truck, or some other large commercial vehicle. Even if it seems clear that the driver of the truck is at fault, some key questions need to be answered.
When Does a Driver’s Conduct Become a Company’s Responsibility?
In Latin, there is a phrase that means “let the superior answer.” This phrase is “respondeat superior,” and it lends credence to the theory that a trucking company can be held responsible for a collision caused by the company’s driver employee. In essence, an employer can be held liable for the wrongful actions committed by an agent or employee if the actions were not intentional and occurred within the individual’s scope of employment.
Is the Driver an Independent Contractor or an Employee?
A company is not usually liable for wrongful actions carried out by independent contractors. So, the first step for an accident victim is to prove that the truck driver involved in the collision is a company employee, not an independent contractor.
Each state has varying laws that may differ in the separation of an employee from an independent contractor. Generally, if the company does not control how resultant work is accomplished, this may likely be an independent contractor relationship. However, if the company controls the detailed way in which the work has to be performed, this is likely an employee relationship.
For example, if a semi-truck driver owns his own truck, uses his own gas, and provides his own truck insurance coverage, plus pays for his own truck repairs and gets paid per load delivered, he or she is usually considered to be an independent contractor. As further proof, this driver determines the delivery specifics, doesn’t receive any employee benefits, and has no taxes withheld from paychecks.
What Acts Fall Within the Scope of Employment?
It can sometimes be difficult to determine what actions are “within the scope of employment.” The legal system tends to observe:
- The place, time, and nature of an employee’s conduct
- The employee’s intent at the time of the accident
- The type of work for which the employee was hired
- The amount of freedom given to the employee in performing duties
- The amount of time used in personal activity
- Incidental actions an employer should reasonably expect of an employee
If, for example, a commercial truck driver hits a car from behind during delivery, the trucker’s employer could likely be held liable for the resultant harm, since the trucker was “within the scope of employment.” However, if the trucker left work early to go to an appointment and hits a vehicle on the street outside the doctor’s office, the company might not be held liable, because this was not “within the scope of employment.”
What About Multiple Defendants in a Truck Accident Suit?
If a personal injury lawsuit lists multiple defendants, each one of them might only be held liable for damages they caused individually, or they might all be held equally responsible for paying the damages awarded to the plaintiff.
When an accident occurs because an exhausted truck driver is driving a truck with faulty tires, the responsibility may be shared. The victim can file a lawsuit against the trucker or his employer, plus the tire manufacturer. If the percentage of responsibility is not clear, the tire maker might be forced to pay its share and the balance that the trucker can’t pay if there is insufficient insurance on the trucker’s part to cover the losses.
Additionally, it can be more difficult to reach a settlement in cases where multiple defendants do not have clear proportions of fault. These types of cases usually go to trial.
Were the Driver’s Actions Intentional?
Generally speaking, an employer is not held liable for intentional acts committed by an employee. This would involve acts like kidnapping, assault, battery, etc. When an employee’s actions aren’t related to the company’s enterprise, the principle of “respondeat superior” mentioned at the first of this article is not met. If a trucker purposely drives his truck into the side of a vehicle for whatever reason, the trucking company will not likely be held liable.
Federal and State Regulations
There are a wide variety of federal and state regulations to which manufacturers, semi-truck drivers, and trucking companies must adhere. These rules dictate the length of time a truck driver can drive without resting, the maximum weight a truck can carry, the specifics of quality control for manufacturing, and so on.
When traffic accidents occur involving big rigs where the driver is at fault, it is highly likely that a regulation, ordinance, or statute was violated. Such a violation raises the odds that a plaintiff will win at trial. The greater the odds of a plaintiff winning at trial, the greater the likelihood that a defendant will want to settle before the case goes to trial.
Federal and state regulations also demand that owners and operators of big rigs have higher insurance requirements. These high policy amounts work to provide plaintiffs with the ability to collect large settlement amounts they are entitled to in a truck accident lawsuit.
How Can a Truck Accident Lawyer Help?
Accident victims should retain a truck accident lawyer as soon as possible. The truck driver’s employer will likely have their own attorney already on retainer. An accident victim will need an attorney to help with the following:
- Identifying liable parties
- Conducting thorough and independent investigations
- Determining negligence on behalf of the driver or trucking company
- Dealing with Car Insurance Companies
- Recreating the Events of the Accident
- Negotiating a settlement
- Completing Lawsuit Paperwork
- Expert Legal Advice
- Dealing with Medical Insurance
Speak With Our Truck Accident Attorneys
The Eichholz Law Firm is highly experienced in holding trucking companies and their drivers accountable for the harm caused to victims of accidents that their trucks and drivers have caused. If this information resonates with you as a victim, contact us immediately for help with your truck accident claim.