trucker using electronic log bookDue to the differences in size and weight between a passenger car or SUV and a large commercial tractor-trailer, an accident involving the two usually has dire results for the occupants of the smaller vehicle. If your 4,000-pound car is hit by an 80,000-pound 18-wheeler, you’re likely to suffer major vehicle damage and catastrophic injuries, if not death.

There are several steps you should take in the aftermath of your Charleston truck accident to strengthen your claim for damages against the at-fault party. If your accident was caused by a negligent truck driver, you’re entitled to compensation for your resulting medical expenses, property damage, lost income, and pain and suffering, but you must be proactive throughout the claims process if you hope to receive a fair settlement.

The most important step you can take after a crash with an 18-wheeler is to contact an experienced truck accident lawyer to immediately get to work proving that the trucker and his company are liable for your damages. We discuss some of the most common causes of truck accidents and what our Charleston truck accident attorney will do to prove liability.

The Danger of a Speeding Tractor-Trailer

A fully loaded tractor-trailer can weigh up to 80,000 pounds, whereas a passenger car or SUV weighs in at 4,000-5,000 pounds. An accident between the two, even when the truck is traveling at or below the speed limit, can have disastrous results for the occupants of the smaller vehicle. If the truck’s speed is higher than the speed limit or too fast for road conditions, the danger of catastrophic injury or death for the occupants of the smaller car is significantly increased for the following reasons.

Stopping Distance

Truck drivers traveling at legal highway speed need more time and distance to stop than a car traveling at the same speed. If the truck is speeding, its stopping time and distance are even greater than usual. This means the speeding truck could easily rear-end a vehicle ahead that stops or slows down suddenly. The truck might also have difficulty stopping quickly if there is an animal or debris on the road. If the truck can’t stop in time to avoid striking an object, a multi-car pile-up could result.

Rounding Curves

A speeding semi-truck is more apt to roll over when rounding a tight curve or making a sharp turn than a truck driving at a reasonable speed. Many truck accidents in the Charleston, SC, area occur on curvy roads.

Cargo Issues

The faster a truck travels, the more likely its cargo is to shift due to vibrations along the length of the truck and jolting over bumps in the road. Shifting or unbalanced cargo can make a truck harder to handle, sometimes causing a trailer to jackknife or causing the entire truck to roll over.

If your truck accident case involved speeding, you will need experienced truck accident lawyers on your side.

How Your Charleston SC Lawyer Will Prove the Trucker Was Speeding

If a truck driver who’s speeding causes a crash in which you’re injured, your first step toward fair compensation is filing a claim against the insurance company of one or more of the following potentially liable parties:

  • The trucker who was driving
  • The trucking company, if it permitted the driver to exceed the maximum number of hours behind the wheel
  • Cargo-loading personnel, if shifting cargo was an issue in your wreck
  • A manufacturer or repair service if defective equipment played any role in your accident

To file a successful claim or to bring a lawsuit if you’re not offered a reasonable award, you must prove the trucker was negligently violating the law by driving too fast. The insurance company is likely to dispute your claim, especially if you have serious injuries and high medical expenses, but an experienced lawyer can help you prove liability and demand a fair settlement. 

What Your Charleston Truck Accident Lawyer Will Do

Your lawyer can work to strengthen your insurance claim or help you file a lawsuit by doing the following to prove that the trucker was speeding:

  • Obtaining data from the truck’s “black box” recorder, dashboard camera, and other on-board recording devices
  • Checking the trucker’s logbook, gas receipts, and toll passes to determine how many hours the driver spent on the road and how long it took the truck to travel from one point to another
  • Examining the police report of the crash and photos of the vehicles and the scene for skid marks and other indicators of speed
  • Calling in an accident reconstructionist as an expert witness
  • Deposing the truck driver and interviewing any witnesses to the crash
  • Checking video footage from nearby security or red-light cameras.

When Your South Carolina Crash Was Caused by FMCSA Safety Violations

Knowing the safety violation record of the company that employs the trucker who caused your accident can strengthen your claim for damages, but not all of this information is available to the general public. In some cases, a request for information must be filed with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office. An experienced truck accident attorney will know how to access the FMCSA safety violations data relevant to your case.

This information provides leverage in your negotiations with the trucking company’s insurer, which may dispute, delay, or deny your claim, more or less daring you to file a lawsuit. If, however, your attorney can present evidence of past safety violations, the company may be more likely to offer a reasonable settlement than to risk a costly and time-consuming trial that it might lose due to its poor safety record.

How a Trucking Company May Be Liable for Your Accident

Semi-trucks can cause catastrophic crashes. Their significant size creates large blind spots, so they can’t see other vehicles well. They also have a tendency to tip over, which is a recipe for a collision when combined with a negligent driver or negligent company behavior.

In South Carolina, the trucking company that hired the driver can be found responsible for negligent hiring, training, supervision, entrustment, retention, and maintenance. Both the trucker and their employer may be liable for the accident that caused your injury, which is why you need legal representation to help you receive full and fair compensation. A skilled South Carolina truck accident attorney can help you gather evidence to show liability due to:

  • Negligent hiring by failing to perform a background check or confirm driving qualifications
  • Negligent training by failing to teach safe driving practices and ensure the driver knows state traffic laws
  • Negligent supervision by ignoring logbook violations or allowing drivers to exceed maximum drive hours
  • Negligent retention by refusing to discipline or fire drivers with frequent dangerous driving incidents
  • Negligent entrustment by allowing unqualified, improperly trained, or even medically impaired drivers to utilize a tractor-trailer
  • Negligent maintenance by failing to repair and maintain the tractor-trailer involved in your collision

The truck's owner may be held responsible for your accident if it didn’t have proper policies in place to handle these issues or if it had them but chose to ignore them.

FMCSA Hours-of-Service Regulations

To reduce the number of accidents caused by driver fatigue, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) established strict hours-of-service (HOS) regulations that specify the number of hours truck drivers may operate on the road between rest breaks, as well as the number of hours of rest required between stints behind the wheel. The FMCSA’s hours-of-service regulations apply to any truck or other commercial vehicle that weighs more than 10,000 pounds and transports cargo or passengers as part of an interstate commercial business.

Hours-of-Service Rules for Drivers Transporting Cargo:

  • May drive up to 11 total hours within a period of 14 hours after having at least ten consecutive hours off duty
  • Must spend a minimum of seven consecutive hours, plus at least two other hours, in a sleeper berth before going back on duty
  • Must take an uninterrupted half-hour break from driving after eight total hours behind the wheel
  • May spend the half-hour break resting, sleeping, or riding as a passenger
  • May not drive more than 60 total hours in seven days or 70 hours in eight days.
  • Must take at least 34 hours off duty, including at least two periods between 1:00 and 5:00 a.m. at the home terminal, before starting a new seven- or eight-day driving period
  • May extend the 11-hour and 14-hour limitations above by as much as two hours when weather or road conditions require slower-than-normal speeds

These regulations control not only drivers of conventional semi-trucks but also operators of car haulers, dump trucks, and vehicles towing or transporting heavy construction equipment like bulldozers and backhoes.

You Could Be Owed Compensation for Damages

If you’ve been in an accident caused by a fatigued trucker who has negligently violated the FMCSA hours-of-service regulations above, you’re entitled to compensation for your resulting medical bills, property damage, lost income, and pain and suffering. Proving that the trucker has violated HOS rules, however, can be difficult and usually requires the services of an experienced truck accident lawyer.

Proving Hours-of-Service Violations With the Help of an Attorney

Trucking companies are required by law to make sure their drivers comply with FMCSA hours-of-service regulations, and all commercial truckers must fill out and maintain logbooks documenting their hours on duty and breaks. These logbooks can provide information vital to your damage claim if you’ve been in an accident caused by a fatigued trucker. Other crucial data showing when a truck is moving or still and how many miles it travels between stops can be obtained from the truck’s black box recorder and other on-board devices.

This data, however, is in the possession of the trucking company, which often erases or discards it monthly, so it’s important to contact a truck crash attorney as soon as possible after your accident. Your lawyer can subpoena the trucker’s logbooks and send the trucking company a spoliation letter advising them that the truck’s recorded information is relevant to an ongoing damage claim and must not be destroyed.  

When the Trucker Was Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs

Driving under the influence of alcohol, prescription medications, or illegal street drugs significantly increases the likelihood of a trucking accident. Even some over-the-counter medicines can have side effects, such as drowsiness, that affect a driver’s ability to operate their vehicle safely. Despite strict nationwide laws against drinking and driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that nearly 30 people per day die in drunk-driving vehicle crashes across the country. According to the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, approximately 7,000 DUI crashes occur annually in our state.

In South Carolina, any driver with a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or more is legally intoxicated and not permitted to operate a vehicle. Commercial truck drivers are held to an even stricter standard. A crash involving a tractor-trailer, which can weigh up to 40 tons when fully loaded, is much more likely to result in catastrophic injury or death than a crash between two smaller vehicles. For this reason, truckers are prohibited from driving with a BAC of 0.04% or above. Commercial truck operators are also held to other rigorous safety standards set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) for the purpose of reducing the number of truck crashes.

The Effects of Drugs or Alcohol on Truck Drivers

The use of alcohol or drugs by commercial truck drivers affects them in ways that can result in serious truck accidents. Due to the unique challenges of driving a semi-truck, impairment is much more dangerous in truckers than in drivers of smaller vehicles.

Blind Spots

A semi-truck has very large blind spots in which nearby vehicles can travel without being visible to the truck driver. When changing lanes or making a wide turn, a trucker who’s under the influence might forget to check mirrors for vehicles in blind spots. If a truck accident results, it can cause injury or death to the occupants of the unseen vehicle and to other vehicles traveling on the road.

Slowed Reaction Time

A truck driver must be able to react quickly to the movement of nearby vehicles, road debris, dangerous weather conditions, and other hazards. Drugs and alcohol can slow a trucker’s reaction time and increase the likelihood of a truck accident when something unexpected happens on the highway.

Reduced Visibility

The use of substances can reduce a trucker’s vision and make it harder to see and react to other cars, pedestrians, road signs, and debris, especially at night.

Bad Judgement Calls

The safe operation of any motor vehicle involves making a series of split-second decisions behind the wheel. A truck driver maneuvering an 18-wheeler at 55 to 75 mph must think fast when slowing down, stopping, dealing with bad weather, maintaining a legal speed, avoiding wrecked or broken-down cars, negotiating curves, and reacting to animals and other hazards. If the trucker’s mind is clouded by drugs or alcohol, a slow or bad decision can result in a truck accident disaster. 

Post-Accident Drug and Alcohol Testing

FMCSA regulations require a commercial trucker to be tested for drugs and alcohol within two hours after being involved in an accident that results in any of the following

  • A citation from law enforcement
  • Physical injury requiring a victim to be transported for medical care
  • Damage to another vehicle that necessitates towing from the scene of the crash
  • A traffic fatality

The commercial driver’s license (CDL) of a trucker who fails the test can be suspended, and the driver may face criminal prosecution for DUI. A refusal to undergo the test can be used in court as evidence of the trucker’s guilt. A DUI conviction, however, will not provide you any compensation for damages you’ve suffered in the crash. To recover damages, you must file insurance claims or a lawsuit in civil court. 

Distracted Driving Is a Major Cause of Truck Driver Error

truck driver using cellphone behind the wheelWhile it’s dangerous enough for any vehicle operator to drive distracted, it’s much worse if the distracted driver is behind the wheel of a commercial semi-truck and causes an accident involving a smaller passenger car. The chances of catastrophic injury or death are high in such a crash due to the size and weight differences between the two vehicles. Unfortunately, 20% of fatal truck accidents are linked to distracted driving on the trucker’s part, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Distractions Responsible for Truck Crashes

Truck drivers’ potential distractions are typically divided into the following three categories:

Manual Distractions

Eating, drinking, changing radio stations, adjusting heat or air conditioning, smoking, setting a GPS device, getting something from the glove compartment, picking up or dialing a phone, filling out logbooks, and sending texts are examples of manual distractions that can take a trucker’s hands off the steering wheel. 

Visual Distractions

Reading text messages, looking at a tablet or GPS device, observing billboards, and paying attention to interesting sights on the highway are among the activities that can take a truck driver’s eyes away from the road and other vehicles.

Cognitive Distractions

Physical discomfort, stress, worry, deadline pressure, talking to a passenger, daydreaming, fatigue, and the use of alcohol or drugs can take a trucker’s attention off the task of driving safely.

The Risk of a Few Seconds’ Distraction

A truck moving at 55 mph covers approximately the length of a football field every five seconds, so being distracted for even a fraction of a minute can leave the driver unaware of nearby vehicles, road debris, animals, or other obstacles on the highway for a distance of 100 yards. That’s enough space for almost anything to happen when vehicles are traveling in close proximity to one another at high speeds. A driver who’s distracted might not see potential danger ahead until it’s too late to react.

Proving That a Trucker Was Distracted at the Time of an Accident

Proving that an at-fault trucker was distracted at the time of your crash is more difficult than proving more externally obvious types of negligence like speeding or reckless driving. A lawyer, however, may take a number of steps to gather evidence of the trucker’s liability:

Examining the police report of the crash for information about the location of the trucker’s phone in the cab, food or beverage containers, cigarette packs, and other indicators of distraction.

  • Hiring an accident reconstructionist to determine exactly how the wreck transpired and what the trucker was doing prior to the crash.
  • Obtaining the trucker’s cellphone records to check for phone use before and at the time of the crash.
  • Viewing video footage from nearby security cameras and interviewing any witnesses to the wreck.
  • Accessing data from the truck’s “black box” recorder, dashboard camera, and other on-board recording devices.

Because the black box data is in the trucking company’s possession and could be erased or destroyed before you gain access to it, your lawyer will likely send a spoliation letter to the company and advise it to preserve that evidence. If the data recorded shows the trucker or employer negligently violated FMCSA or South Carolina cellphone laws for commercial truckers, it will help you to prove liability and seek fair compensation for your damages. Truck accident cases often hinge on obtaining the truck's data recorder.

When a Trucker’s Medical Condition Causes a South Carolina Truck Accident

During the course of the two years between exams, a trucker might develop one or more medical conditions that could impede the safe operation of a commercial truck, such as:

Vision problems

Deteriorating vision or the failure to get new glasses can affect the ability to see traffic signs and signals, as well as other cars on the road. Drivers who ignore deteriorating vision could be found at fault in a truck accident case.

Meniere's disease

This inner-ear disorder can cause vertigo (dizziness), tinnitus (ringing in the ears), or hearing loss that might make other cars’ horns or emergency vehicles’ sirens inaudible, increasing the likelihood of a truck accident.

Heart conditions

Chest pain, angina, and thrombosis are among the coronary problems that could render a driver unable to operate a truck safely. If a trucker suffers a heart attack while driving, the results could be catastrophic for vehicles and their occupants traveling nearby.

Seizures

Epilepsy or another seizure disorder can leave a driver unconscious at the wheel and result in a disastrous truck accident.

Addiction

A trucker’s use of alcohol or drugs slows reaction time, reduces vision, and affects decision-making. Even if a CDL holder is using medical marijuana legally, its presence in the bloodstream can result in revocation of the CDL.

Because truck driving is a sedentary job often requiring long-distance travel, many drivers don’t get enough exercise or eat properly. Obesity and related conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea are thus common in the profession. A trucker is required to show proof that such conditions are medically under control in order to retain the CDL and continue driving.

It’s common, however, for a trucker to develop one or more of these conditions between exams and simply continue driving for as long as possible. Some drivers also ignore the two-year medical exam requirement for as long as they can, and some trucking companies are not vigilant about requiring regular medical exams for drivers. This means you have no way of knowing whether that 80,000-pound truck traveling beside you at high speed on the highway is being operated by a healthy person capable of safe driving.

Dirk J. Derrick
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South Carolina Lawyer Dirk Derrick helps victims recover from car accidents, personal injury & wrongful death.