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How Semi-Truck Accident Lawsuits Work

Dan Brian   |  February 26, 2016   |  

Personal injury claims involving commercial trucks can be particularly complex. There are specific federal regulations that apply to tractor trailers and drivers of commercial vehicles, and these can be important to a personal injury claim. For example, if a driver was on his cell phone, or had headphones on, these could be factors that should be considered in any kind of personal injury claim, but they become particularly important in trucking accidents because these actions in and of themselves can demonstrate a violation of the standard of care owed by commercial drivers.

It is particularly important in trucking accidents to get a truck accident lawyer involved early on in the process. Log books, cell records, GPS memory, and black boxes have a tendency to disappear after major collisions. Even if they don’t disappear, they can be corrupted or overwritten. For example, if you attempt to download the data from the black-box of a truck or bus, the very act of downloading the data can cause the data to be erased. And most black boxes require software specifically compatible with that vehicle’s black box. So if the trucking company attempts to download the data using software that is not a good fit, the data can easily be deleted and become permanently unrecoverable.

It can also be important in trucking accidents to investigate the driver of the vehicle. If the driver had a history of medical, criminal, or traffic incidents, then he may not have been well-suited to work as a truck driver. The very act of putting such a person behind the wheel of a commercial vehicle can demonstrate negligence on the part of the trucking company.

Even if the trucking company did nothing specifically wrong, and their driver was simply at fault for a mistake that caused an accident, the trucking company is still potentially liable under the doctrine of Respondeat Superior. This doctrine stems from an old common law rule that provided that a master is responsible for the actions of his servant if the servant was carrying out the duties imposed on him by his master. So if a truck driver is performing a delivery for an employer and he causes a collision, the employer, and their insurance, are jointly responsible for the wreck, along with the truck driver.

Trucking accidents also frequently involve Worker’s Compensation Claims. Even if a truck driver is at fault in a collision, he can probably successfully pursue a worker’s compensation claim. If the truck driver is an employee and not an independent contractor, then he is probably covered by worker’s compensation coverage. The North Carolina Worker’s Compensation system is a no fault system; if you are hurt in an accident on the job, you are probably entitled to benefits.

damages mean compensationThere are some exceptions. If a driver was drunk, or if he was on a significant deviation from his duties (driving off his route to go visit his mother), then he might be found to be so far outside the scope of his employment that Work Comp coverage should not apply. But such a deviation must be significant. For example, simply heading to grab lunch is probably not a deviation from employment. Nor is doing something silly and goofy enough to void Work Comp coverage (this is called the “horseplay” doctrine) since employees are expected to joke and have fun during the workday.

If a truck driver is involved in a collision where he is not at-fault, he will likely have two separate claims—one for worker’s compensation (WC claim) filed against his employer’s Work Comp coverage, and another for personal injuries (PI claim) against the at-fault driver’s auto insurance. These types of claims become very complex, and almost always warrant the assistance of an attorney. The way these claims typically play out is that the driver files a Work Comp claim, and the worker’s compensation insurance agrees to provide medical care to the injured driver and to pay him 2/3 of his wages while he is out of work. The worker’s compensation insurance will, however, want to direct the driver’s medical care and tell him where he can treat. This can become an issue in these joint WC-PI claim.

For example, sometimes the worker’s compensation carrier directs the driver to treat at places that are inappropriate, like telling him to go to a urgent care center for a concussion. Sometimes they drag their feet on approving medical care. These issues can diminish the value of the PI claim by giving liability adjusters or their defense attorneys points to attack about the claim. For these reasons, it may become necessary to compel the WC insurance adjuster to provide appropriate medical care, or even to seek medical care outside of the WC system.

Additionally, it is important to understand that the WC insurance company will have a right to be reimbursed for anything they pay out. So if the WC insurance pays $5,000 in medical bills, and another $2,000 to the injured worker for his time out of work, they will later want to be reimbursed for this $7,000 from any settlement of the PI claim. North Carolina law does provide them with a right to reimbursement, but it also provides that this amount is subject to negotiation and reduction for procurement costs or other reasons.

The PI settlement is typically larger than the WC settlement, although this is certainly not always the case. This is because the PI settlement should include 100% of wages lost, instead of 2/3, and should include pain and suffering, which is not included in the WC claim. But sometimes the PI claim will have unforeseen issues, such as a liability defense that the WC claim did not have.

It is also common that a WC settlement comes before the PI settlement. But sometimes this is not the case either. If the WC claim is not settled, it can become complicated to settle the PI claim, because the WC insurance does not yet know the full extent of their payout that they want to have reimbursed. However there are means to settle the PI claim first. It is important to properly have the settlement meet several technical hurdles however, such as being approved by the North Carolina Industrial Commission, to ensure that the WC claim does not become prejudices by the PI settlement.

Our firm has handled numerous claims involving truck drivers, both in terms of representing the truck driver in his or her claim, and in terms of representing victims hurt by truck drivers. On our results page you can read about one recent claim attorney Gene Riddle settled for $1,800,000 in total money obtained from resolution of a joint WC-PI claim. If you or a loved one have been injured in a motor vehicle accident involving a truck or other commercial vehicle, contact us and see if we can help.