Millions of big trucks—15.5 million to be exact—transport billions of dollars of goods over American roads each year. In 2018 in Florida, over 9,000 trucks were involved in over 8,500 accidents. Nationally, a person dies in a truck-involved accident every 16 minutes. Because there is such size disparity between passenger vehicles and trucks, when the two collide, it often results in severe injury for the passenger car occupants.
As dangerous as truck-car collisions are, accidents caused by cargo falling off of trucks as they move along our roadways can be just as dangerous. No driver is prepared to see a large object hurtling toward them that has come loose from the back of a truck, like a scene out of a horror movie. In these types of accidents, the trucks themselves can end up in a collision because the shifting balance of the load can make the vehicle harder to control. Cars that must swerve to avoid being hit by the cargo or the out-of-control truck may collide and cause catastrophic accidents.
Causes of Falling Cargo
Cargo can come loose from trucks for a variety of reasons, all of which include negligence on the part of someone who came into contact with the load.
It is incumbent upon truck drivers to inspect both their vehicles and how their cargo is loaded. A variety of different equipment is used to secure cargo depending on its properties. Truckers may use things like steel traps, wedges, tie-downs, or webbing. If this equipment is failing or worn out, cargo can come loose and spill onto the road. Faulty equipment should be spotted during routine inspections, but sadly, that’s not always the case.
The trucking industry is heavily deadline-driven, and there is a natural—and not unethical—inclination to load trucks as full as possible to save money on transportation costs by reducing the number of trips and to meet strict deadlines. However, unscrupulous fleet companies may attempt to overload trucks by stacking them too high to save on multiple trips and their associated labor and equipment costs. An overly high load can throw off the balance of the truck, making turning dangerous. Cargo stacked too high is also more susceptible to high wind speeds and may pose a danger when driving under overpasses.
Truck loads need to be balanced across the trailer to allow for smooth turning and more regulated braking. When cargo is not balanced, truck drivers find it more difficult to make precise turns, and the distance required to come to a complete stop lengthens. An improperly balanced load may come off the truck while turning or cause the truck to jackknife in the middle of the road during a turn.
Cargo Loading Regulations
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has established guidelines pertaining to the proper loading of truck cargo to ensure that it is safely transported from one location to another. In addition to general safety principles, FMCSA has also put forth cargo-specific guidelines that take into consideration the unique characteristics of the most commonly-transported cargo.
FMCSA’s overarching guidelines require that loaded cargo must be able to withstand turning, stopping, and acceleration without coming loose. Freight must be unable to move or shift, and the guidelines provide minimum numbers of tie-downs based upon cargo weight.
In addition to those principles that pertain generally to all loaded cargo, FMCSA has established for a wide range of specific types of cargo, including the following:
- Dressed lumber and similar building products
- Metal coils
- Paper rolls
- Concrete pipe
- Automobiles, light trucks, and vans
- Heavy vehicles, equipment, and machinery
- Flattened or crushed vehicles
- Roll-on/roll-off or hook-lift containers
- Large boulders
These specific guidelines take into consideration the unique characteristics of each type of cargo and attempt to provide standard practices to ensure that even oddly shaped objects and those that are not easy to contain remain on the truck that is hauling them.
Enforcement of the Regulations
Weigh stations and checkpoints are located throughout America’s highway and interstate system. Truckers are required to check in at these stations. There, safety officers check the legality of the truck’s load. Violations can result in fines up to $5,000 and an inability to continue down the road. Unfortunately, given time constraints and deadline pressure, many truck drivers simply drive right on by these stations and only a small percentage of truck loads are properly inspected.
The Responsibility to Secure Truck Loads
So who bears the responsibility of ensuring that truck cargo is properly secured? That answer gets somewhat complicated. In some cases, multiple individuals working for multiple entities may come in contact with the load, and it may be difficult to determine whose negligence actually caused the accident. It is not uncommon for a driver to start off at one warehouse with a small load, drive down the road to another warehouse where more cargo is loaded onto the truck, and then continue driving. Depending on the type and amount of cargo, this may happen multiple times during a single trip. The responsibility ultimately falls on the trucker to ensure that his load is secure, but in complicated circumstances like this, where there may be blame to share, you can bet that the parties involved will be trying to spread it around.
What to Do if You Were Injured
Injuries suffered in falling cargo truck accidents can be severe and have long term effects on the mental, emotional, physical, and financial well-being of the injured parties. Medical bills can pile up, and you may feel traumatized by getting into a car. Physical injuries can be serious enough to change your way of living, your daily life, or affect your ability to work in the type of employment you enjoyed before your accident. The good news is that the law attempts to allow you to recover for both the monetary and non-monetary losses that you suffer due to the negligence of someone else.
File Your Insurance Claims
All Florida drivers are required to carry Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance under the state’s no-fault law. The idea behind this requirement is to provide drivers with a fairly quick payout for medical and disability benefits, or in the case of a fatality, a small death benefit to the survivors of the deceased person. The law requires a $10,000 minimum for both medical and disability benefits and a $5,000 minimum for death benefits.
File your claim right away. You generally must file within 14 days of your accident, or the insurance company will deny your claim.
You should also file claims with any health insurance provider that you have. This is a much more drawn out and likely frustrating process, but stay on top of submitting your claims. Most medical facilities and doctor’s offices will do this for you, but if you are spending on items such as medication or medical devices, you should submit these claims on your own if your insurance plan covers those costs.
If you’re having trouble keeping up, call a truck accident lawyer, who can assist you with all of the paperwork necessary for a successful claim.
Document, Document, Document
It is critically important that after any kind of accident you document the costs you incur to treat, diagnose, and recover from your injuries. You will need to present this documentation for payment under PIP, and as proof of your damages in any future lawsuit.
Keep track of all of your bills. As scary as opening them might be, do it and set them in a safe place so that you have proof of your incurred costs. This includes the cost of any ambulatory transportation to a medical facility, your initial hospital stay and associated surgeries and tests or lab work, follow-up appointments with specialists, future surgeries, physical or occupational therapy, mental health therapy, rehabilitation, medications, home health care services, or medical devices. When in doubt, keep the proof.
You should also keep close track of the time your injury has caused you to miss work. You should keep track of full days for hospital stays and hours for appointments. Make sure you also list any tips, commissions, or retirement contributions that you miss out on by not being able to go to work. Like your medical expenses, this information will be important for both receiving PIP payments and determining the amount of damages to which you’re entitled in any future lawsuit.
When Insurance Just Doesn’t Cover It All
If you have to spend any time at all in the hospital, your PIP benefits will probably run out much sooner than you think they will. A stay of a week or more could end up costing tens of thousands of dollars. If you require complex surgeries or procedures, need to take specialized medication, are admitted to a residential rehabilitation center, or require extended therapy of any kind, your costs could easily extend into a 6 or even 7-digit number. If you’re lucky enough to have health insurance, you may still owe a significant portion of your costs if you have a large deductible or your insurance company decides to be particular about what it chooses to cover.
All of that can be overwhelming. Very few Americans can financially recover from significant medical bills, making medical debt the number one reason people in the U.S. file for bankruptcy. That doesn’t have to be you, though. The laws of Florida allow you to hold the person who caused your injuries responsible for them and to seek monetary damages to compensate you for both financial and non-financial losses that you’ve suffered because of that person’s negligence through a personal injury lawsuit. But you generally only have four years from the date of your accident to file your suit, so contact an attorney as soon as possible.
How an Experienced Truck Accident Attorney Can Help
You might be wondering if you even need an attorney to help you recover your damages. Without equivocation, that answer is yes. Personal injury cases can be complicated at every stage—from determining who is at fault and thus should be a defendant in the suit (especially tricky in falling cargo cases) to ascertaining the amount of damages you should seek. You can also rest assured that anyone you file suit against will lawyer up (if it’s a company, they’ll likely already have a team on staff who has fought these kinds of battles before and knows exactly what they’re doing). You do not want to enter that fight alone.
How to Choose a Truck Accident Attorney
Once you’ve decided that you don’t want to attempt to litigate your personal injury claim alone, how should you go about choosing an attorney to represent you? You’ve probably seen a multitude of attorneys advertising their services, so how do you select the one to help you through something as important as a personal injury lawsuit? There are three important things that you should consider before you retain anyone to represent you.
- Look at the experience of the attorney. While all attorneys have to make it through law school and the grueling ordeal that is the bar exam, after that, the similarities end. Basically, anyone can begin a practice the day he or she passes the bar and thus begin taking cases. But in personal injury cases, experience matters, and not just general experience. You need someone who will be able to competently handle your case from filing to jury verdict, if your case doesn’t settle out of court. Seek someone who has not just handled personal injury cases, but has handled your specific type of case. Think of lawyers as similar to doctors, they all have areas of the law that they focus on, and you would not want a criminal defense attorney representing you in a personal injury lawsuit, just as you would not want a podiatrist to operate on your brain. Trust your case to someone who knows what they’re doing, understands the area of law that your case involves, and has the skills necessary to know how to fight for every dollar you deserve.
- Get a feel for the attorney’s reputation in your local legal community. Fancy TV advertisements do not indicate an attorney’s experience or ability. Fortunately, the Internet has made it pretty simple to figure out how your attorney is thought of, both by former clients and other attorneys practicing in your community. Yahoo! and Google reviews are helpful, and Avvo is the number one website for ranking and reviewing lawyers.
- Finally, look at your lawyer’s team. Personal injury suits are not one-man shows. You need a team of people on your side. These cases require investigators to look for evidence and interview witnesses. The amount of paperwork associated with personal injury cases is pretty staggering, so you need paralegals and legal secretaries who can stay on top of court-required filings to ensure that your documents are submitted on time and in accordance with court procedures. Your case may also require the services of any number of expert witnesses to testify about your complex medical issues, serve as an accident reconstruction specialist, or conduct a financial analysis of the amount of future earnings your injuries have cost you. A competent truck accident attorney will know which professionals will benefit your case and how to seek them out.
Contact a Florida Truck Accident Attorney if You Need More Information
A truck accident involving falling cargo can devastate your life. No two cases are exactly the same, and while no attorney can guarantee a specific result in your case, look for someone who can put the weight of their extensive experience, superior legal knowledge, and true compassion behind your case.