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Commercial Trucking Company Liability for Accidents

Failure to Correctly Hire, Train, and Supervise Drivers is Common Cause of Truck Accidents

The most common cause of all motor vehicle accidents — and often a contributing factor even if not the primary cause — is driver error. People are imperfect, and whether through mistake, inexperience, fatigue, simple negligence, or intentional recklessness, motor vehicle drivers are the first place to look when trying to figure out why an accident occurred. While mechanical failure, roadway problems, or other issues sometimes cause traffic accidents, these factors are relatively rare compared to driver error. Truck drivers are professionals who spend much more time behind the wheel than average drivers — we would assume they have the training and experience needed to avoid many common mistakes. But they still do make mistakes, and this fact points at one of the most common reasons for truck company liability — the failure to properly hire, train, and supervise their drivers.

Just as driver error is the most common cause of accidents, a commercial trucking company’s failure to manage their drivers is the most common reason why a trucking company may be found liable for a traffic collision.

Truckers vs. Trucking Companies

The vast majority of truck drivers are good, hard-working people, who are just trying to support themselves and their families by performing a job that is crucial to our nation’s economy. They no more want to be involved in a traffic accident that does anyone else on the road. But the truck driving business isn’t what it used to be, and drivers are frequently underpaid, overworked, and just trying to make ends meet. The typical truck driver has little or no say in their job conditions or the procedures their employers want them to follow.  Partly as a result of these pressures, large truck accidents per mile driven increased by 18% from 2011 to 2020, according to the National Safety Council.

Likewise, however, not all trucking companies are greedy profiteers trying to squeeze every last ounce of work out of their drivers. Some are on the forefront of truck safety initiatives and are leaders in establishing safe driving standards.

Unfortunately, there are “bad apples” among both truck drivers and commercial trucking carriers. The bad apples among drivers can and should be weeded out by companies that properly hire, train, and supervise their employees — drivers with problematic records shouldn’t be hired, new drivers should be trained to avoid bad practices, and current drivers should be supervised so as to keep bad practices from taking root. Unfortunately, some truck companies succumb to the significant economic pressures — especially in light of current and projected driver shortages — to either hire and maintain bad drivers or to “look the other way” when drivers exhibit bad driving behaviors. And some truck companies will outright pressure their employees to act in ways that are unsafe in pursuit of the bottom line.

Vicarious Versus Direct Truck Company Liability

All states have some form of what’s called vicarious liability on the part of an employer for damages caused by an employee. Vicarious liability is a legal theory that places some degree of legal responsibility upon a person or entity that wasn’t negligent based upon their relationship with someone who was negligent. Vicarious liability for an employer basically says that when employees acting in the course and scope of their work negligently cause damages such as personal injuries, their employer is liable for those damages whether or not the employer itself specifically did something wrong.

Direct liability on the part of an employer means that the company itself did something wrong — this would include acts or omissions constituting a failure to properly hire, train, and/or supervise its employees. Hiring a driver with a history of drunk driving arrests, requiring a driver to operate a specialized vehicle on which they had no experience, or not monitoring the number of hours its drivers spend behind the wheel would constitute failures on the part of the trucking company for which it could be held directly liable if those failures led to an accident and injury.

Where Direct Truck Company Liability Matters

Many jurisdictions may have limitations on vicarious liability. For example, most states hold private vehicle owners vicariously liable for damages that result when another person negligently operates the owner’s vehicle, but the dollar amount of this liability is usually limited. In California, the “permissive user” statute that establishes this type of vicarious liability limits the vehicle owner’s responsibility to $15,000 per person injured or $30,000 for multiple injured persons.

While often the matter of proving truck company liability by showing failure to properly hire, train, and supervise its driver is just one more way of proving their legal responsibility, sometimes it can have significant impacts on a damages award. One important way this can happen is in a situation where punitive damages are awarded.

Punitive or “exemplary” damages are meant to punish or make an example of a defendant who has committed some particularly egregious act, such as driving while drunk and causing injuries or death. A truck driver who chooses to consume alcohol to the point of intoxication, then drive a big rig and causes serious injuries or death might well have punitive damages awarded against them in a civil trial for personal injuries (in addition to whatever criminal charges they might face) — but mere vicarious liability wouldn’t necessarily be enough to see punitive damages also awarded against the truck driver’s employer if the employer had no reason to suspect that behavior would occur.

On the other hand, if that truck company knowingly hired a driver who had a history of drunk driving convictions, or if that truck company failed to make a reasonable effort to acquire the driver’s past driving history — that would be a matter of direct liability on the company’s part.

It would also be the difference between a driver who on a particular occasion exceeded their “hours of service” limitations, became overly fatigued, and caused an accident by falling asleep at the wheel, versus a truck company that regularly ignored its employees’ hours of service logs or that frequently pressured its employees into exceeding those safe service hours. Proving direct liability can matter quite a lot.

View this video describing how truck driving jobs have become much more difficult in recent decades, only to be further pressured by recent shipping crises and pandemic restrictions:

California Truck Accident Attorneys

Hello, my name is Ed Smith, and I am a California truck accident attorney.  Truck companies establish their own criteria for hiring drivers and are responsible for making sure those drivers are properly trained before putting them behind the wheel.  Truck companies also set many of the rules under which their drivers must operate, and these employers are responsible for properly supervising those drivers.  When a truck company has failed to adequately hire, train, and/or supervise its drivers, proving this can be a crucial step in securing full compensation for someone who has sustained serious injuries in a truck accident.  If you or a family member has suffered a serious injury due to negligence of a truck driver, please contact us today at (916) 921-6400 or toll-free at (800) 404-5400 for free, friendly advice.

You can also reach us through our online contact form.

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