One of the most deadly situations for passenger vehicle occupants is an accident with a commercial truck. As explained by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, commercial tractor-trailer trucks can weigh 20 to 30 times what a passenger car weighs.
They also have greater ground clearance, which is often enough space for a smaller vehicle to slide underneath them during an accident; a phenomenon known as an underride accident. They also have enormous blind spots on all four sides, require a longer distance than other vehicles to come to a safe stop, need a wide area in which to turn, and they’re prone to tipping over if the driver attempts to swerve to avoid a collision.
With all of these factors, it’s no wonder that in the U.S. in one recent year, more than 4,000 people lost their lives in accidents involving commercial trucks. In Florida, 27 crashes in one recent year resulted in fatalities and another 126 caused incapacitating injuries.
If you’ve lost a loved one in an accident involving a commercial vehicle in Orlando, you may be wondering how to cope with the loss. While no amount of money can compensate you for your loved one’s life, there may be compensation available through a wrongful death lawsuit for the surviving family members of loved ones who died as a result of someone else’s negligence. An experienced truck accident attorney can help you understand if you may qualify for this compensation.
Immediately After an Accident
Florida law requires that all drivers involved in a motor vehicle accident remain at the scene, render aid to injured individuals, call for help if needed, and provide their vehicle, driver’s license, and insurance information to the other driver. If the other driver is incapacitated and unable to accept this information, then they must provide this information to an uninjured occupant of the other vehicle or to the police when they arrive at the scene.
Leaving the scene of an accident in which there is a fatality is punishable in Florida by a fine of $10,000 and a mandatory minimum of four years in prison. Additionally, the driver who left the scene will be disqualified from driving a commercial vehicle for at least one year under federal trucking industry regulations. This disqualification is extended to three years for drivers hauling hazardous materials, and drivers who have been convicted of leaving the scene of an accident more than once face a lifetime disqualification.
Car accident scenes are chaotic, particularly when they involve a large truck. The truck or accident debris may block travel lanes, first responders may arrive at the scene and attempt to save the lives of the seriously injured, and law enforcement officers may be present to talk to the drivers and investigate the scene all at once. Truck accidents often require the roadway to be closed for a time to provide investigators and responders with the space they need to do their work without the risk of being hit, and to prevent other additional accidents.
Police officers generally begin their investigation by conducting interviews with the driver and others who were in the vehicles or witnessed the accident. The completed report usually includes a description of how the accident happened based on the results of the interviews and other accident scene evidence the officers were able to observe.
If the accident was considered major—such as a multi-car pile-up or an accident resulting in several fatalities—the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will be called in to investigate. This is particularly true if the accident took place on an interstate highway. The NTSB consists of several “Go Teams” with anywhere from three investigators to more than a dozen. Based in Washington, these teams are available to travel anywhere in the U.S. on short notice. They come to help local investigators and may continue conducting their own investigation into the crash for several months.
For example, NTSB investigators were dispatched to an accident near Gainesville in which a semi-truck driver slammed into a church bus full of adults and children from Louisiana who were on their way to Disney World, killing five children and two adults. A preliminary report was released several months after the accident and the investigation by both the NTSB as well as the Florida Highway Patrol continued even after that time.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requires that any carrier whose vehicles have been in an accident register the accident with the agency within one year. The registration, designed to assist accident investigators, must contain information such as:
- The date of the accident;
- The town or city within which the accident occurred;
- The driver’s name;
- The number of injuries involved;
- The number of fatalities involved; and
- Whether hazardous material other than fuel from the vehicles’ fuel tanks spilled during the accident.
In addition, if the family of a person killed in the accident wishes to proceed with a wrongful death claim, their attorney will likely investigate on their own to determine the liable parties. Liability is established through the following three elements:
- The driver owed the deceased person a duty of care. Generally, the relevant duty of care in a motor vehicle accident is to operate the vehicle safely and lawfully, obeying state and federal regulations.
- There was a breach of this duty of care. The breach is the action that the driver took that was contrary to the rules governing the safe and lawful operation of the motor vehicle.
- The breach resulted in an accident, which caused the victim’s death.
Some of the information that investigators—whether investigating on the federal level, the local law enforcement level, or for the attorney’s office—may look at include:
- The police report;
- Witness statements;
- Electronic data housed in the truck’s “black box”;
- The truck driver’s complete driving history, both professional and personal;
- The track record of the company that employed or contracted with the truck driver; and
- The maintenance and repair logs for the truck.
The attorney’s investigation may uncover additional liable parties, such as:
- The company that contracted with or employed the driver. Trucking companies are required to perform extensive background checks on those they hire, including that person’s driving history. Additionally, if the truck driver is an employee of the company, the company is required to perform routine drug screenings, annual health evaluations, and ensure that the driver is properly trained to handle the demands of the job.
- The shipper. Shippers are required to ensure that the trucking companies they hire to transport their goods possess the required insurance and that they have a safe track record. Additionally, sometimes shippers are responsible for loading their goods into the truck and may be found liable for accidents that are the result of shifting or otherwise poorly loaded cargo.
- Other drivers. Not every accident involves just two drivers. Sometimes, the actions of a third driver can cause the other two vehicles to collide. An experienced accident attorney will carefully evaluate all of the details of the case, including the actions of other drivers on the roadway just before the crash.
- Truck parts manufacturers, if a defective part was a contributing factor in the crash.
- The individual or entity responsible for maintaining the truck, if the accident was caused at least in part by poor maintenance, despite the truck’s owner having taken the truck in for regular maintenance.
A deceased driver’s family sued the automaker Tesla in a wrongful death lawsuit for an accident that happened several months earlier when the driver, with his vehicle on autopilot, crashed into a semi-truck. The NTSB was in the process of investigating the accident when the lawsuit was filed, and had stated in their preliminary report that the truck was pulling out of a driveway and had crossed the southbound lanes of US 441 and had attempted to turn left into the northbound lanes when the Tesla Model 3 crashed into the left side of it. The roof of the Tesla was sheared off and the vehicle underrode the tractor-trailer.
The Tesla came to rest on the median 1,600 feet from where it initially struck the tractor-trailer. The 50-year-old man inside was pronounced dead at the scene. Investigators determined that autopilot was turned on just seconds before the crash occurred. Additionally, the vehicle’s data stated that, as many as eight seconds before the accident occurred, the driver’s hands were not on the wheel. An attorney representing the family claimed that the crash occurred due to a defect in the vehicle’s autopilot function.
The lawsuit is reminiscent of a crash in 2016 involving another Tesla and semi-truck collision in which neither the 45-year-old driver nor the autopilot reacted to a truck crossing the highway. In that case, the Tesla underrode the truck and then autopilot continued to keep it moving a significant distance before it came to a stop.
Far beyond the accident scene, the attorney may also work on establishing a value to the case based on the losses suffered by survivors. This involves looking at the deceased’s earnings before death and calculating how much they would have earned in the future had they not died in the accident. In this way, often cases involving the deaths of working adults with high paying jobs and many more productive years ahead of them net far more damages than lawsuits by surviving parents of a child who has no work history and therefore no lost wages or net accumulations to recover.
How PIP Policies Help the Families of Florida Accident Victims
Drivers who register their vehicles in Florida are required to purchase a personal injury protection (PIP) policy of at least $10,000. In addition to partial coverage of medical expenses and lost wages for injured policyholders, their family members, drivers of their insured vehicle and passengers of that vehicle, PIP policies also provide a death benefit of $5,000.
This death benefit is made available to the decedent’s family members so long as the decedent was named on the policy or was a passenger or a driver in the insured vehicle. The benefit along with other PIP benefits are also available if the individual was a pedestrian or was riding a bicycle when the accident occurred.
Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Florida
In Florida, if a person’s death was caused by a “wrongful act, negligence, default, or breach of contract,” then their estate or surviving family members may be entitled to claim compensation through a wrongful death lawsuit. The claim must be filed by a personal representative, either named in the deceased person’s will or appointed by the court, on behalf of the survivors. This generally must be done within two years of the date of death.
Those who may benefit from a wrongful death claim include:
- The decedent’s spouse;
- The decedent’s minor children;
- The decedent’s adult children if there is no spouse;
- Each parent of a deceased minor child;
- The parents of an adult child if there are no other survivors; and/or
- The deceased’s estate.
The estate of the deceased may recover the deceased person’s lost earnings, net accumulation, and expenses related to medical treatment for the deceased’s final injuries and funeral expenses. The surviving family members may recover for the loss of support and services; the loss of the decedent’s companionship, guidance, and instruction; mental and emotional pain and suffering; and medical and funeral expenses that were paid by the survivors.
Adult children can only recover lost parental companionship, guidance, or instruction if there is no surviving spouse or minor children. If a minor child is born to unwed parents, they may recover if the mother’s death is the subject of the wrongful death lawsuit. However, they may only recover if the father’s death is the subject of the wrongful death lawsuit if the father legally claimed the child as his own and contributed to the support of the child.
If you have questions about whether you can file a wrongful death suit after a truck accident, please call an experienced truck accident lawyer for more information.
Orlando, FL 32814