An experienced Huntsville trucking accident lawyer will tell you that when dealing with trucking accidents, federal regulations require that certain essential evidence only be maintained for a limited amount of time. For instance, the truck driver’s log may be destroyed after six months if a trucking accident attorney does not obtain a court order or take other action immediately following the trucking accident. Federal regulations also require over the road trucks to carry various levels of insurance coverage, depending on the nature of materials hauled. Many times, trucking, hauling, and leasing companies may argue over which insurance company is responsible for compensating the victim trucking accidents. Current federal regulations protect the innocent party by helping to ensure coverage if trucking accidents occur.
After a trucking accident has turned your world upside down, how do you find out exactly what happened and why? Law enforcement will investigate the matter, interview witnesses, and file a report, but a trucking accident investigation conducted by the authorities may not reflect an entirely accurate picture of what occurred. Sometimes the police miss important pieces of evidence or fail to interview eyewitnesses that can prove essential to your case. Our office provides legal representation and trucking accident investigations services to victims of trucking accidents throughout the country.
The truck company will rarely if never pay your medical bills immediately after trucking accidents. However your own insurance will often contain medical payment provisions to pay for bills ranging from funeral costs to x-rays. Many people are reluctant to involve their own insurance company in any medical claims process. However, most insurance policies require you to notify your insurance company of trucking accidents in which you have been involved.
It is usually in your best interest not to sign a medical release or authorization and not to give a statement to the trucking company or any insurance company before contacting a trucking accidents lawyer.
After a serious collision, the trucking company’s claims adjuster begins to protect the trucking company’s interests immediately. An investigator will begin to collect evidence in order to defend or minimize the claim. The trucking company may also attempt to steer you away from a trucking accident lawyer, because they know that if you have a trucking accident attorney, you are statistically likely to receive a greater settlement. The trucking company takes immediate measures to actively insure that they are protected against your claim as much as possible. What have you done to protect yourself and your family as the result of permanent disability, fatal trucking accidents, or other tragedy?
Don’t rely on the police to get it right- act fast and extensively investigate the circumstances of your accident. Whether you have a serious injury or wrongful death claim, we ensure that no stone is left unturned by thoroughly:
The outcome of a detailed investigation can reveal the cause(s) of your accident and who the responsible parties are.
In preparing to negotiate your claim and/or go to trial, we routinely:
Gathering evidence in cases involving commercial trucks is a very demanding task, since the trucking industry has so many special and unique regulations, documents, operations, technologies and driver demands.
It is the application of this special knowledge that separates a trial lawyer who attempts to handle a truck case as if it were just another car wreck case from one who recognizes that the additional factors can lead to more certain proof of liability and a significantly higher recovery. This article will provide a brief summary of the steps that you, the plaintiff’s lawyer, should take to discover the evidence needed to win at trial.
Discovery in a trucking case should ideally start well before the complaint is filed. The two largest potential sources of information during the initial phase of the case are the tractor-trailer itself and the investigating police officer. In the situation where you are retained soon after the wreck, time is certainly of the essence regarding the inspection of the truck and trailer. Given the potentially valuable information that is available from the commercial vehicle, you should try to gain access to the wrecked tractor-trailer before tracking down other likely sources of information. Locating the tractor and trailer often takes persistence and a significant amount of digging, especially when the vehicles are removed to the motor carrier’s home state. Sometimes, the tractor and trailer are often owned by different entities and may be removed to different locations.
The amount of damage to the tractor-trailer should have no bearing on your decision regarding whether or not to inspect. While some lawyers prefer not to be involved with any aspect of the inspection, allowing their private investigator and accident reconstruction expert to conduct the entire inspection, this author feels that the lawyer should not only attend the inspections but should also participate in them. You should be careful, however, not to become so involved in the inspection as to make yourself a witness, potentially subjecting yourself to a defense motion for disqualification and a malpractice claim. During an inspection, you should act as a supervisor, making sure that all of the bases are covered.
A video and still camera should be used to thoroughly document all visible damage to the truck and trailer from all angles. You should take distance photos so that the jury can appreciate the overall perspective of the entire vehicle. The cameras should also be used as your investigator combs through the interior portions of the tractor and trailer. The investigator should prepare a written list of the items identified during the inspection. Each item of import should be carefully described on the list, with its location within the vehicle noted. All areas within the truck should be meticulously examined, including all storage compartments and the sleeper berth. Careful documentation and preservation of evidence found during a pre-suit inspection is critical to avoid defense claims of spoliation.
A checklist such as the one in Appendix “A” helps you avoid overlooking important items during a tractor-trailer inspection. After surveying and documenting the damage to and contents of the big rig, you should direct your accident reconstructionist or other qualified expert to retrieve and/or download any electronic data that is available.
Today, a number of electronic devices and systems exist and have been put into use by many motor carriers. All of these devices create electronic data, some of which is stored. Among the various types of devices that are currently in use are the following:
All of the above devices can provide valuable information about the use and
operation of the truck prior to, during and after a crash. “But plaintiff’s lawyers must be careful not to overestimate the extent to which this technology can help or hurt their cases.” [iv] Traditional expert reconstruction of a wreck from crush data and other evidence can still be used to attack the electronic data by showing its inaccuracy or limitations in particular cases.[v]
Since the above devices are rather sophisticated, you should make sure that the expert that is used to retrieve the data has experience and competence in doing so. Otherwise, if the expert mistakenly erases the data, then not only will your client’s case be compromised, but you may also be named as a defendant in the spoliation case. After thoroughly inspecting the tractor and trailer, you should contact the next most valuable source of pre-suit information, the law enforcement investigator.
The investigating law enforcement officer is charged with determining how the wreck happened as well as documenting the location of forensic evidence, such as skid marks and crash debris. Generally, if the Highway Patrol conducts the investigation of a truck wreck, the investigating officer obtains written statements from the individuals involved in the wreck as well as any witnesses. If the wreck involves a fatality, or if the trooper suspects that the driver of the tractor-trailer is under the influence of some intoxicating substance, the trooper usually take a recorded statement. The attached “Appendix B” is a checklist of most of the items that you can obtain from the investigating officer.
In many states, including Alabama, the state police now have a specific department dedicated to accident reconstruction. All of the reconstruction officers are equipped with still photo cameras, and they have access to a video camera if they feel it is needed. These officers, in their discretion, also have the ability to request that aerial photographs of the scene be taken by the Highway Patrol’s Aviation Unit.[vi] If you are willing to pay for the cost of reproducing the photographs, the Highway Patrol is generally more than willing to provide you with copies.
Other individuals that can also be excellent sources of information are the tow truck driver, the vehicle storage facility operator, and the EMS personnel. All of these people may have come in contact with the truck driver, and they may have heard or seen the driver say or do something that could help your case. You should also inquire of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as to whether they have conducted an investigation of the wreck. If an NTSB investigation was done, then you should contact the investigator and obtain a copy of his report, including his conclusions.
Once the complaint is filed, you must utilize her specialized knowledge of the ICC safety rules promulgated at 49 C.F.R. 383, 390-399 (the bible of the trucking industry, known as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) issued by the Federal Highway Administration).[vii] These Regulations constitute a candy store shopping list for the plaintiff’s lawyer:
Written discovery should focus on the owner/lessee’s and driver’s failures to comply with the FMCSR. This author is yet to handle a case where there have not been numerous violations by both the company/owner and driver. In drafting your written discovery, you should reference the specific sections of the FMCSR that apply in your case. The easiest way to do this is to simply have a copy of the regulations at your side while drafting your interrogatories and requests for production. All of the topic areas listed above should be thoroughly explored in multiple sets of written discovery. The J.J. Keller & Associates, Inc. (www.jjkeller.com) publishing company produces a number of helpful pocket books dealing with the various sections of the FMCSR.
After obtaining copies of all of the pertinent documents from the truck company, you should be armed with a wide variety of ammunition to use during the defendants’ depositions. Depending on the facts and issues in your particular case, you should always consider taking the video depositions of the following persons from the truck company:
In the final analysis, once you know and understand the importance of gathering
all of the potentially discoverable information in a truck case, and actually take the time and effort to obtain that information, you will succeed in obtaining a favorable result for your client.
LAW ENFORCEMENT INVESTIGATION:
Obtain copies of the following from Investigating Officer:
[i] See generally Paul Menig & Cary Coverdill, Transportation Recorders in Commercial Motor Vehicles (visited 12-12-03) (for a thorough description of the types of on-board systems available and in use, as well as a reference to other resources)
[iii] Menig & Coverdill, supra at note 1.
[iv] See Dennis Donnelly, Black Box Technology in the Courtroom, TRIAL, April 2002, at 41.
[vi] Sgt. Steve Lockhart, North Carolina Highway Patrol Reconstruction Department, Raleigh, North Carolina.
[vii] See Branton & Lovett, Automobiles, Volume 2, Trial Lawyer Series, 10-5.