In this podcast, Paul Kelley from Satterley and Kelley PLLC, talks about commercial trucking accidents. He explains who’s liable for the injuries, and then, he outlines what you should do if you get into an accident with a commercial truck driver.
John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Paul Kelley. Paul is a partner with the Kentucky Personal Injury Law firm, Satterley & Kelley which has over 30 years of collective experience in handling personal injury and wrongful death claims.
Today we’re talking about company and driver responsibilities in commercial truck accidents. Welcome, Paul.
Paul Kelley: Hey, John. How you doing today?
John: Good, thanks. So Paul, what’s an example of a commercial truck accident? What do we mean by that?
Paul: Oh, gosh, John. I mean, there’s so many. I mean, there’s so many trucks on the road now, but not to pick on any company or single anybody out, but Amazon has a lot of trucks on the road, from delivering packages, millions of packages on a daily basis and thousands probably in Kentucky. So that’s a commercial truck where it’s a carrier like a UPS or a Federal Express or any company like that. But there’s literally thousands of similar types of vehicles that are on the road today that are delivering products from coast to coast.
John: Right. So it doesn’t have to be just like an 18 wheeler that you see on the highway. It can be that, of course there’s lots of those on the road, but it could also be these smaller delivery trucks or things like that?
Paul: Absolutely. I mean, it can be haul trucks. I mean things that are just hauling rocks or coal or steel back and forth. It can be garbage trucks. It can be any large vehicle that is intended to carry or deliver something in between two locations. And we encounter dozens of them every day on the 10 minute drive from home to work and back.
They’re all over the place, and they are different than just a regular car, a passenger car, a passenger truck. They are different because there are regulations that are in place that cover a full gamut of things that truck companies and truck drivers are supposed to do to keep the road safe as a result of the vehicles that they’re driving.
And I’m sure that all of the listeners are aware that there’s a special license, commercial driver’s license that the drivers have to get, and they have different requirements than we do just to go to the DMV and get our license to drive our own cars.
So again, there is a huge responsibility that is imposed upon truck drivers and truck companies, delivery companies, garbage companies, haul truck companies. There’s a huge responsibility that’s placed on them in order to do what they ultimately get to do.
John: Right. And Satterley & Kelley is based in Louisville, Kentucky. I imagine that being sort of in the position that you’re in, sort of right in the middle of the United States there, you must see a lot of interstate trucking going both north and south and east to west, going through Kentucky, delivering all kinds of things.
Paul: Oh, absolutely. I mean, UPS has a major hub in Louisville, and so a ton of flights are coming through, but a lot of ground deliveries are taking place that originate right here in Louisville. And so yes, I mean truck collisions sadly are a problem everywhere, and I think they’re a particular problem where we sit.
John: Right. So when a commercial truck is in an accident, is it the driver or the company that owns the truck that’s responsible?
Paul: So, they’ll both be responsible. The driver will certainly be responsible for his or her negligence. We have something called the vicarious liability. It’s also referred to as respondeat superior. It essentially means that the owner of the truck or the company that they work for, they are vicariously liable for the negligence of the truck driver.
So when somebody gets into a collision or an accident with one of these big trucks, it’s not just the driver that you’re going after and it’s not some poor person who makes whatever they make, and then you’re going to send that person into bankruptcy if you get a big verdict.
It’s the employer that’s also responsible because the employer, the company that owns the truck, the company that the driver’s working for, they’re getting the benefit. And typically speaking, those collisions always occur in what we call the scope of employment. And that always is a big point. If the driver says, “I left X location at 9:20 this morning for the Acme Company and I was delivering a product to another company across town.” You’re within the scope of your employment. And so the company, the employer, is always going to be held responsible for the driver’s negligence.
Now, there can be situations where they deviate from the scope of their employment and that deviation as such that it somehow takes the employer out of it. But I haven’t seen that happen yet.
John: It would be pretty rare.
Paul: It would be extraordinarily rare. And they own the vehicle. So there’s always responsibility no matter what, but for typically speaking, the company is going to be responsible for their employee’s negligence.
John: Right. The driver would almost have to go rogue and say, okay, I’m going to veer off of my route and go off and take the truck on some personal thing that I’m doing, but that would be grounds for being fired. So I don’t think too many drivers would be doing that, but it could happen.
Paul: Well, and so there’s also kind of a second way that you can get the company or hold the company responsible. Sometimes we see situations where the driver should not have been hired in the first place. These companies are generally massive, sophisticated companies. They make millions, if not billions of dollars a year doing what they do, and they have an obligation to make sure that safe drivers are operating their vehicles.
And so things like alcohol related incidents that occurred either before or after they’re hired that they could have and should have discovered, that can be an additional basis to hold the company liable if there are, just a bad driving record. It doesn’t have to be alcohol related, it could just be a bad driving record. The company can be held additionally responsible for essentially what we call a negligent hiring or a negligent retention. And there is some split in terms of legal authority as to how far you can go with that.
But certainly if a driver has two DUIs before you hired them, that person shouldn’t have been hired. And God forbid that driver then consumes alcohol while they’re operating one of these death machines and causes a collision. And it could have been easily avoided by just not hiring that driver.
We’re going to see some interesting things that are going to happen in the future, John, because you probably have read about, and many of our listeners probably have as well, about driverless vehicles. We don’t know exactly where it’s going to go yet. The law is trying to keep up with it all, and it’s difficult to do because the technology is available, but it’s not being widely used at this point.
But I personally believe that the first vehicles that we really see on a widespread basis that will be driverless will be these big trucks, not your Amazon and your UPS, which requires somebody to get out of the car and go deliver the package. But your 18 wheelers where it’s literally loaded in one spot and unloaded in another spot.
John: They’re just going from a loading dock to a loading dock and that’s it?
Paul: That’s right.
Paul: And the driver himself or herself is not actually physically loading or unloading the vehicle. We can conceive that those vehicles may be the ones that are the first driverless vehicles. And so that’ll post some interesting things in the future. And we’re working on that both as a part of what we do at Satterley & Kelley, but I’m also in trial organizations that work with legislators to try to figure out how to deal with that sort of thing, if and when it happens.
John: Right, you don’t have a driver that you can go after in the case of an accident, but obviously, the company could be at fault potentially whatever the software, AI that’s driving the car could be at fault there as well. So there lots of interesting things to think about.
Paul: Absolutely, absolutely. One other issue aside from the driver’s vehicle aspect of it, is there’s always a potential, a product liability component to being the cause of a commercial truck accident. Sometimes the driver didn’t do anything wrong. The trailer was defective and it came off the hitch and smashed into somebody. Sometimes the tires blow out and they were perfectly maintained, but there was just a dud of a tire that came on.
And so the manufacturers of the trailers or the trucks or the tires or whatever the component may be that actually contributed to the collision. And everybody’s done this, you’ve driven on the highway before and you’ve gotten behind a logging truck or something that is carrying something like steel or beams that’s held on by a strap and you’re thinking, “I need to get away from this vehicle.”
John: I try to get as far away from that truck as possible.
Paul: More than likely it’s secure, it’s secure as it can be, but it’s always a frightening situation. And so there can also be situations where, well, the driver didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. The company that he worked for didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, but the places where they load these vehicles, they didn’t load them properly, they didn’t secure the loads properly. And maybe the driver has some responsibility for that, but it can go beyond just the driver and the driver’s employer, but it could also be the companies that they’re transporting products for.
So, it takes a little bit to dive into all of those details because when we get a case, we really know one thing and one thing only at that point, that somebody was likely catastrophically injured in a collision caused by a 18 wheeler or some other type of commercial vehicle, like a UPS truck or a logging truck.
And then we have to figure out the why. And the why could be a loading problem. The why could be completely driver negligence. The issue could be some sort of product liability associated with the vehicle itself, and it can be a combination of all those things.
And so, those cases are not always very easy. But the good news is typically somebody’s responsible for causing that kind of collision, and typically they’re all there and available to identify and to get and hopefully hold somebody accountable and properly compensate people for what likely would be a pretty catastrophic injury.
John: So, what should a person do if they are involved in an accident with a commercial truck?
Paul: Well, so in Kentucky we have two years to pursue a claim against the driver and against the driver’s employer. I believe that we really only have a year from the collision to file a product’s liability claim and to potentially to file a negligence action if, for example, we conclude that it was loaded improperly and that somehow contributed to the collision.
Reason that is, is we have the Motor Vehicle Reparations Act in Kentucky, which governs the law and statute of limitations for all motor vehicle accidents. And that’s a two year statute of limitations. For everything else in Kentucky, we only have a one year statute of limitations for personal injuries caused by something other than a motor vehicle collision.
And so time is always of the essence. A year goes by fast. And while we still would potentially have a claim under the Motor Vehicle Reparations Act for two years, if it’s a product defect, you may lose out if you take a year in order to contact a lawyer and to investigate the claim.
So the main issue, of course, is always a medical situation. I mean, some people fortunately aren’t permanently injured or aren’t so injured that they can’t do their daily functions. Some people are killed, some people are catastrophically and tragically injured. So getting the medical situation under control is certainly first and foremost for everybody. But unfortunately, because as soon as you get into a collision, and you’ve probably heard of the black box, a lot of these trucks have black boxes. Your cars do now too. But as soon as this collision occurs, somebody for that trucking company is investigating right away.
They probably come to the scene of the collision. It’s where they have a huge advantage over you. Most people don’t have the wherewithal ability and probably the mental faculty, once they get into a collision to contact a lawyer that they trust immediately to get out to the scene of the collision to start to investigate.
So, they’re getting a huge drop and they’re going to have a ton of information that’s compiled before you get out of the ER if you’re lucky enough to get out of the ER the day of the accident. And certainly if you have a lengthy hospital stay, by the time you get out, they’ve got it all figured out. They may not be willing to tell us what they figured out, but they’ve got it figured out and they’ve got it figured out how they’re going to defend the case.
So, it’s critical to contact a lawyer immediately, contact somebody that has experience with these cases and do it as quickly as possible so that we have enough time to investigate and figure out all the things that we’ve been talking about today. Was this a driver error? Was this a loading problem? Was it a product liability? Was it something else?
And of course there could be multiple vehicles involved and all kinds of other things. So, some are very straightforward and you’ll figure it out pretty quickly, some are not. But the sooner that you can retain an attorney and have somebody protect your rights, the better. Before that happens, whether it’s three days, three weeks, or three months, in my view, it’s important not to give statements to the truck company or to its insurance carrier.
We hear the term a lot in the criminal context, but something I think resonates with everybody is what you say can and will be used against you. And if you give a recorded statement or some sort of statement to the truck company, it may not be accurate and it may not be helpful depending on what’s been asked and you’re not represented. So there’s nobody there to protect you in the circumstances.
So, I always tell everybody that the nicest person’s going to pick up the phone, they’re going to call you and they’re going to act like they’re your best friend and they’re going to give you all kinds of great information and tell you everything’s going to be good, but they’re not your friend and they’re not there to protect you. They’re there to protect the company that they represent.
So, it’s critical while you’re evaluating what you want to do, i.e., hiring a lawyer, not hiring a lawyer, whatever the situation is. But it’s important that you don’t have communications, verbal, give statements, sworn statements, written statements, it’s important that you don’t do that until you get your business figured out as to how you’re going to approach that case.
John: And so how do you recommend that people approach that if say the insurance company or the trucking company does call, do you just sort of politely say, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk about this right now. I’m in the middle of hiring a lawyer, or I’ve hired a lawyer and I think you’re probably going to need to speak with them,” and maybe give your lawyer’s name and phone number out to them, or what’s the sort of the way that somebody should handle one of those calls?
Paul: Sure. So before you’ve hired a lawyer, the best approach is to say, “I’m not prepared to address this now. Me or a lawyer will be in touch with you someday,” and leave it at that. Nobody can compel you to do anything. You’re under no obligation to talk to the opposing driver or to the opposing driver’s insurance company or their employer.
Now, there are some situations where your own insurance company may contact you, and I still recommend that you refrain from giving interviews or giving any sworn statements to your own insurance company until you retain counsel. Sometimes though, in order to access medical benefits under your own insurance policy, you need to give them enough information in order to get that accomplished.
So, do what you need to do to get your medical expenses paid by your own carrier. But if it’s the other side, politely decline to speak with them because they’ll promise you, well, we’ll pay your medical expenses. Just tell us what happened. And that promise isn’t binding. I mean, you get that in writing.
Don’t sign anything ever until you hire an attorney and your attorney says it’s okay. Some of these contracts, these settlement agreements that I get, and I’ve been doing this for 21 years, my partner’s been doing it for 25 years, that first draft, sometimes it’s the simplest thing you ever saw. No big deal. Completely understandable. One page, sometimes it’s 15 pages, and it takes forever to go through and figure out what it is that they’re actually getting you to agree to. So, that’s important.
After you’ve hired an attorney, well, that’s easy. They can’t talk to you at that point. Now you have to notify them or the attorney does. And what I usually do when somebody hires me is we send a letter to the company. Usually we get some information that we’re able to do that and say we represent John Doe. Please direct any further correspondence and communication to me. And from an ethical standpoint, they cannot have any contact with the victim anymore.
If that hasn’t happened for whatever reason, or they’ve ignored it or just hadn’t gotten to him yet, it’s important for you to say, “I’ve hired a lawyer. You need to contact my lawyer. This is what his or her name is, contact them,” and that’s that.
But at that point, any communication that the employer, company, the insurance company, anybody adverse to you at that point, they have to go through me. They can’t just pick up the phone anytime they want and try to get information. Just like I can’t do the same thing with their managers, supervisors, the driver, the president of the company, have to do everything through them at that point.
John: Right. Okay. All right. That’s really great information, Paul. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Paul: Thanks, John. I appreciate it.
John: And for more information about personal injury and wrongful death claims, visit the law firm of Satterley and Kelley at satterleylaw.com or call (800) 655-2117.
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