America ’s highways are heavily populated with tractor trailer rigs. With so many tractor trailers on the roads and the ever present pressure on drivers to deliver the goods they transport as fast as they can, safety is often compromised for the sake of speed and making a profit. As a result, the number of serious collisions involving tractor trailers continues to rise.
Lawyers may assume that truck litigation is the same as pursuing a personal injury or wrongful death case involving passenger vehicles. If you make that assumption, you may fail to maximize the recovery for your client.
So what should you do? Our experience in litigation against trucking companies has helped us develop a discovery strategy that has been very valuable to the plaintiffs we represent who have been injured or killed in collisions with tractor trailers. Although the ins and outs of truck litigation are far too complex to cover completely in this article, the following tips will help you begin to preserve the evidence that is essential to proving your case against the trucking company:
1. Send a letter to the trucking company by certified mail notifying the company that you represent the plaintiff, outlining the accident facts and demanding that the company preserve and refrain from destroying the documents and evidence that pertains to the case. Most trucking companies have a document retention policy with the main goal being document destruction. Under the Federal Motor Carrier Regulations, trucking companies are only required to keep logbooks for a six month period. Document destruction is an ongoing process for trucking companies of shredding driver logs, fuel receipts, weigh tickets and other evidence as soon as the six month deadline expires. Failure to pursue the case quickly and preserve the evidence can result in the destruction of crucial documents that will prove logbook violations and violations of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
Demand that the documents be preserved for the 30 day time period prior to the accident. If you have reason to believe that a longer time period may be relevant, demand that the documents be preserved for that time period. These documents include the driver’s logbooks, the co-driver’s logbooks if there is a co-driver, trip reports, vehicle and equipment inspections, fuel, lodging and food receipts, weigh station receipts, requests for reimbursement and the supporting documentation, bills of lading, payroll records, training materials, the driver’s qualification file and the results of any drug or alcohol testing performed on the driver before or after the accident.
Many companies now utilize on-board recording and tracking devices which operate via satellite to monitor the location of drivers. Demand that all information from any on-board tracking, computer, and/or communication devices be preserved.
Remind the trucking company in writing that destruction of this evidence or any other evidence relevant to the accident may result in the imposition of sanctions and penalties for spoliation of evidence.
2. Locate the tractor trailer and any other vehicles involved in the collision and gain access to all the vehicles. Take pictures and videotape everything including the inside of the vehicles. Pay careful attention to items in the cab area such as prescription and over-the-counter medications, empty containers for medication, and anything indicating that the driver might not have been paying attention to the road at the time of the collision such as papers, books, magazines, food wrappers, maps, a cell phone, or pet supplies.
3. Read and become familiar with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Pay particular attention to sections 383 (regulates driver’s license requirements, drug testing and carrier responsibilities); 390 (sets forth carrier requirements for vehicle inspections, maintenance, driver qualifications and compliance with hours of service regulations); 391 (establishes driver qualifications); 395 (governs driver’s hours of operation); and 396 (covers inspection, repair and maintenance of vehicles).
4. Hire an accident reconstructionist and have him or her visit the scene, take photographs, videotape and measurements, and examine the vehicles as soon as possible after the collision. If you are fortunate enough to have been hired shortly after the collision, you have the ability to access and preserve evidence at the accident scene such as skid marks, tire marks, bent guardrails, broken median barriers, and pavement gouges. This evidence will be invaluable to proving your case against the trucking company.
5. Interview the witnesses listed on the police report and inquire whether they know of other witnesses. In almost every accident involving a tractor trailer, there are witnesses that are not listed on the police report who either saw the collision or stopped to help the victims. In an effort to clear the traffic from the scene and avoid additional collisions, law enforcement officials often ask witnesses to get back in their cars and leave the scene of the accident without getting names and addresses.
In a case we recently settled, the truck driver had passed several other motorists at approximately 80 mph in a rainstorm before a violent collision that killed the wife of our client. Several of these motorists were not listed as witnesses on the police report. In another case, witnesses who were not listed on the police report had stopped to administer first aid to our client’s husband, who was crushed by a tractor trailer and later died. These witnesses were able to establish that he was still alive when they arrived on the scene. Finding these witnesses provided crucial evidence in both cases that helped to maximize the damages.
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