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Truck Accident Litigation — Identifying All Defendants

A Wide Variety of Possible Parties to Truck Accident Litigation

Personal injury claims and lawsuits resulting from “typical” traffic accidents between passenger cars will often have only a single named defendant — the person who was the negligent driver who caused the accident and who was likely also the owner of the vehicle they were operating. Sometimes a second defendant may be named if the negligent driver was operating someone else’s vehicle, or if the negligent driver was in a work vehicle and on-the-job. Due to the nature of the freight and shipping business, however, truck accident litigation may involve several different potential defendants — each with one or more liability insurance companies — who need to be carefully sorted through and evaluated in order to bring the truck accident personal injury claim to a successful resolution. A skilled and experienced personal injury attorney will understand the necessity of doing this as a basic service for clients in truck accident cases.

Why It’s Important to Identify All Defendants for Truck Accident Litigation

Two crucial elements for any personal injury litigation are discovering and proving who may be liable — legally responsible — for the injuries and other damages that resulted from an incident, and which of the liable parties are able to provide compensation for those damages by way of either insurance coverage or “deep pocket” assets or both. Merely proving that a truck driver was negligent and liable for the resulting damages is inadequate if only the blue-collar truck driver’s individual assets and insurance coverage are available as compensation. While the legal doctrine of respondeat superior will usually hold the employer trucking company vicariously liable for the negligence of an employee truck driver, there are other situations and reasons for identifying and bringing in as defendants as many different parties as may be available.

As a general rule, the more defendants who can be shown to be legally liable — and the more insurance coverages and defendant assets that can potentially provide compensation for damages — the better for the final outcome for the personal injury victim. Attorneys skilled in handling truck accident litigation will be aware of this and will diligently seek to identify all the potential defendants for a particular truck accident case.

Who May Be Legally Liable (And Why) as Defendants in Truck Accident Litigation

The first and most obvious defendant, of course, is the truck driver. Most truck accidents — like any motor vehicle accidents — result from driver error and showing negligence on the driver’s part is the first step in any case of this type.

The next most obvious defendant is the trucking company who employed the truck driver. The legal elements for finding a trucking company-employer liable for damages in a civil lawsuit caused by its negligent employee are detailed in the California Civil Jury Instruction (CACI) 3701. This is a jury instruction developed and approved by the California Judicial Council and would likely be given to a jury in a truck accident trial involving an employee-truck driver — it basically requires that:

  • The person was an agent/employee of the employer.
  • The person negligently harmed the plaintiff.
  • The person was acting within the course and scope of their employment when they caused the harm.

Beyond the driver-employee and trucking company-employer as obvious potential defendants, however, there are a number of additional possibilities and circumstances that may be relevant:

Independent contractor drivers. It’s become much more common for trucking companies to claim that some or all of their drivers are in fact independent contractors, rather than direct employees to whom the doctrine of respondeat superior would apply. To a degree, this has been done in an effort to escape liability for negligence claims, but it’s probably as much or more an effort to deny the benefits and employee rights the company would need to provide to the drivers if they were direct employees. In truck accident litigation for personal injuries, these claims are most often gotten around by examining the actual day-to-day circumstances of the driver’s work for the truck company and whether those circumstances fit within the requirements for legally being considered an “independent contractor.” The word “independent” is significant, since a contractor must actually have a fairly wide degree of independence to be considered as such. If the commercial carrier company is the sole or primary provider of work to that employer, they may not be independent. Likewise, if the company retains significant control over “how” the job is performed — rather than just “pick up the load here, deliver it there” — the driver is unlikely to be truly independent.

Freight brokers. Brokers are companies (often motor carriers themselves) that hire commercial carrier companies like a trucking company to deliver loads on behalf of shippers. The broker may be a potential defendant in truck accident litigation if they failed to act prudently in selecting the trucking company for the job. They have a duty to verify the licensing, insurance, and safety records of the trucking companies they choose to contract with. If a broker fails to do so, they may be liable for damages that result.

Shippers. Shippers — those on whose behalf the goods are actually being moved — are not often considered as potential defendants in truck accident litigation, but at least a few cases have held that shippers have a minimum obligation to at least verify the contacting motor carrier has the basic qualifications to safely perform the job they’re agreeing to.

Parent corporations. Corporations may form or acquire subsidiaries for a number of different reasons, one of which is an effort to insulate the parent corporation and its assets from potential liability for activities performed by the subsidiary. Under the legal doctrine of alter ego liability, it may be possible to pierce this protection in order to bring the parent corporation into the truck accident litigation as a defendant and put its assets at direct risk. Similar to showing how a claimed “independent” contractor isn’t one in reality by proving the degree of control the employer has over the contractor, showing that a parent corporation has alter ego liability usually depends on showing the degree of control and ownership the parent has over the subsidiary and its finances, assets, and employees.

View this news report that explains how recent changes in California law may impact the question of who is or isn’t an independent contractor truck driver:

California Truck Accident Attorneys

Hello, my name’s Ed Smith, and I’m a California truck accident attorney.  Identifying all possible defendants in truck accident litigation is important for holding all liable parties responsible and insuring adequate insurace coverage and corporate assets to fully compensate plaintiffs who have sustained serious personal injuries in a truck accident.  There are several legal theories that may apply depending upon the circumstances, and a skilled personal injury attorney will  understand how to do this.  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.

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