A truck accident is often catastrophic because of the weight of the truck, the trailer, and the payload. The driver isn’t always at fault; in some cases, the driver of another vehicle, the truck’s maintenance crew, the condition of the roads, the person loading the truck, or even the manufacturer of the brakes may have caused the accident. Regardless of the cause of the accident, there is an at-fault party that is responsible for the injuries caused by the truck, even if it’s not the driver or the trucking company.
Big Rig Brakes and Weights
Tractor-trailer brakes must have the capacity to stop up to 164,000 pounds. While the federal weight limit is 80,000 pounds, some states allow combinations of trailers towed by one truck.
Some trucks have two trailers, each having eight axles that can carry up to 164,000 pounds. Turnpike doubles are tandem 48-footers that can carry up to 147,000 pounds. A Rocky Mountain double is a long trailer with a shorter trailer hooked to the longer front trailer. These combinations can weigh up to 129,000 pounds. Triples—three 28-foot trailers—can weigh up to 110,000 pounds. Even at 80,000 pounds, that is a lot of weight for the brakes to handle, especially at highway speeds.
The Tractor’s Braking System
Many things can go wrong with a tractor trailer’s braking system. Unlike the rather simple system found on passenger cars, the tractor-trailer braking system is a complex system of air tanks, air hoses, spring brake valves, ratio valves, trailer control valves, relay valves, service lines, air dryers, safety valves, chambers, a governor, and a compressor.
The trailer’s braking system is not quite as complicated as the tractor’s system, but the trailer’s system does run off the tractor’s system. The trailer’s system has service and supply lines, a relay valve, a trailer spring brake valve, an anti-compound line, and spring brakes.
Both systems have several air lines. Any one of these parts could fail, or a truck or trailer could develop a leak in one of the air lines. Depending on the problem and where it is, the brakes on a big rig could lock up or not work at all when the driver presses the brake pedal.
Additionally, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards require tractors that were manufactured after 1997 and trailers manufactured after 1998 to have anti-lock braking system (ABS) brakes. A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that having ABS brakes caused a significant reduction in off-road over-turns, jackknives, and to a lesser extent, collisions with other vehicles, except for front-to-rear wrecks.
When a Tractor Trailer’s Brakes Fail
If the brakes fail on a tractor-trailer, the brakes may lock the wheels and cause the trailer to skid back and forth across the road, potentially causing a jackknife. If the brakes fail and do not allow the driver to stop, the driver might struggle to stop before causing an accident.
One of the more common reasons that brakes fail is because they get overheated. If a tractor-trailer is driving down a steep mountain, the brakes could easily overheat. This is why you see brake lanes cut into the side of the road. The brake lanes usually have a big sand pile at the end of them to help the trucks stop.
In this situation, the failed brakes are not the only danger. Since the driver has no control over the truck’s speed, other than trying to downshift, the truck could quickly get out of the driver’s control and swerve across the road or even flip over in a curve.
Truck Accident Injuries
Because of the size and weight of a big rig, accidents are often fatal or may have catastrophic injuries that can change your life, especially if a truck loses its brakes and cannot slow down before it hits you. Even if the truck doesn’t hit you, but the trailer swings to the side at a high rate of speed, you could suffer from severe injuries.
- Bumps, bruises, scrapes, and cuts;
- Road rash, especially if you are on a motorcycle or get thrown out of a convertible;
- Burns, including thermal, radiation, electrical, and chemical burns;
- Strains and sprains;
- Torn or pulled muscles;
- Simple or compound fractures;
- Head, neck, and shoulder injuries;
- Traumatic brain injuries;
- Back and spinal cord injuries;
- Internal injuries; and
- Face and eye injuries.
Secondary Injuries and Underlying Conditions
When you have a claim against a defendant for an accident, you can also recover compensation for secondary injuries. In most cases, secondary injuries from vehicle accidents are infections of burns and open wounds. Untreated surface infections can lead to bacteremia, sepsis, and septic shock.
While everyone is susceptible to infections, those who have underlying conditions have a significantly higher risk of developing an infection. Diabetes type 2, diabetes type I, and other immunodeficiency diseases, along with drugs that drop your white cell count, are all factors that make an infection more likely.
Signs of infection. You can catch an infection early if you know what to look for. You definitely want to catch any infection before it leads to some of the more serious signs of an infection, such as vomiting and shortness of breath.
Early signs of an infection include:
- Pus or other fluids leaking from an open wound;
- Blister-looking sores;
- The skin is angry red around the open wound or burn;
- The wound and the area around it are painful;
- Yellowish or greenish crusting, or pimples on top of the open wound;
- A red streak that starts at the wound and travels toward your heart; and
- A wound that refuses to heal.
As soon as you notice any of these symptoms, even if they are questionable, you should seek medical attention. You may qualify to recover damages for secondary infections of wounds caused by vehicle accidents.
Who You May Sue After a Truck Accident
If you were hit by a truck, whether another person caused the accident, the driver caused the accident, or faulty brakes caused the accident, you can sometimes settle with or sue more than one person or company. Commercial cases are more complicated than other accident cases, as commercial cases often require a deeper investigation to determine all parties who share liability for the wreck.
Depending on the circumstances of the truck accident, you could recover compensation from:
- The truck driver;
- The owner of the truck (whether an individual or a company);
- The lessor of the truck (you can have an owner, a lessor, a lessee, and a driver who are all different people);
- The lessee of the truck;
- A third party driver, such as a vehicle that cuts off a truck and causes it to jack-knife or flip;
- A municipality for poorly maintained roads;
- The truck’s manufacturer;
- The trailer’s manufacturer;
- A dispatcher who encourages a driver to break laws and regulations to deliver a load by a certain time, even when the dispatcher knows that the delivery time is impossible without breaking speeding laws or hours-of-service regulations by threatening the driver’s job;
- A repair technician who errs when repairing the truck, including its brakes;
- Inspectors who notice issues with the truck, including its brakes, but allows the driver to drive anyway; and/or
- Parts manufacturers that sold defective parts, including defective brake parts.
Recoverable Damages After a Truck Accident
You can recover three types of damages after a truck accident, including economic damages and non-economic damages, which are compensatory damages, and punitive damages. The court orders economic damages and non-economic damages to make victims whole again. While the money won’t necessarily help injured individuals recover faster, fully recover, or bring back a loved one, financial compensation does relieve the financial stress of having reduced or no income because of the accident.
Special damages, also referred to as economic damages, have a monetary value. You can recover most economic damages regardless of how long your injuries last.
These damages include:
- Past medical expenses, including physical, cognitive, and psychological therapy expenses, for those incurred before a settlement or trial award.
- Future medical expenses, including physical, cognitive, and psychological therapy expenses, for those incurred after a settlement or trial award.
- Past lost wages for the time you could not work from the time of the accident through the time of settlement or the trial award.
- Future lost wages for the time you cannot work after a settlement or trial award. You could also collect compensation for partial future lost wages if you cannot work again, but the injuries you suffered caused disabilities that preclude you from working in the same job at the same rate of pay as before the accident.
- Replacement or repair of destroyed or damaged personal property, including your vehicle and any personal property inside your vehicle.
- Burial, funeral, and cremation expenses.
General damages, also known as non-economic damages, do not have a monetary value.
The court usually awards non-economic damages when the injuries you suffer in a truck accident cause long-term or permanent disabilities, such as:
- Pain and suffering, including emotional distress;
- Loss of quality of life;
- Loss of companionship;
- Loss of consortium;
- Loss of use of a body part, such as a hand or a finger;
- Loss of use of a bodily function, such as your eyesight;
- Excessive scarring; and
- Inconvenience, if you have to hire someone to do the chores, you would usually do, such as lawn maintenance, house cleaning, or grocery shopping.
Courts only order defendants to pay punitive damages if their behavior was grossly negligent or intentional. Punitive damages are meant to punish defendants and not to make victims whole again. If a court orders the defendant to pay punitive damages, this amount is over and above compensatory damages.
To recover punitive damages, you must show the court that the defendant’s actions or inactions were grossly negligent or intentional. If you wish to pursue punitive damages, that may bifurcate the trial. Once the court grants the award for compensatory damages, in other words, it requires a second trial for punitive damages.
While asking for punitive damages is an extra step, it is sometimes worth it. In a truck accident, you might fight for punitive damages if the driver was driving while distracted, if the driver was under the influence at the time of the accident, or if you can show that the manufacturer of any part of the braking system on a truck—or any other part, for that matter—knowingly sold a defective part.
Settlement or Litigation
After a big rig accident, you need to decide if you want to attempt a settlement first or go right to litigation. It is up to you, and your attorney will help you make that decision. Many people attempt settling first, but if the insurance company does not offer a fair and reasonable settlement, injured individuals should move on to litigation.
While litigation can take a long time to resolve, it is often worth waiting if the insurance companies refuse a fair and reasonable settlement, especially if doctors expect your injuries to lead to long-term or permanent disabilities.
This also applies to those who lost a loved one because of a truck accident. Insurance companies are always focused on their bottom lines—not your well-being.
Contact an experienced attorney for a free case evaluation if you sustained injuries in a truck accident or if you lost a loved one in a truck accident. An attorney can answer any questions that you may have, help you determine whether you qualify to pursue compensation for your injuries, and guide you through the legal process. Without legal representation, you may accept a settlement offer from the insurance company that doesn’t fully compensate you for your injuries and misses out on your opportunity to recover maximum compensation.