When driving on New Jersey’s roads, all drivers are expected to maintain their vehicles and ensure that they meet safety standards. This sort of behavior helps to ensure that when going out on the road, drivers are unlikely to experience a catastrophic failure of their vehicle that leads to a loss of control or to parts falling off and putting other drivers in danger. Unfortunately, not every driver will maintain their vehicle and, whether due to financial constraints or irresponsibility, such failures will put themselves and other drivers in danger.
That danger is only further enhanced when the vehicle is a large truck. Whether a moving van, a delivery truck, or a tractor-trailer, these vehicles are often under far greater stress than smaller vehicles and require greater maintenance to ensure they are safe to drive. A lack of proper maintenance by truck drivers and owners can lead to tragic accidents.
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Take, for instance, the New Jersey case of Smith v. Whitaker, in which a truck with faulty brakes slammed into a car at an intersection, killing the driver of the car. If those brakes had been properly inspected, maintained, and replaced as necessary, then the accident was unlikely to have ever occurred. Sadly, this proved the liability of both the truck driver and his employer, which was the truck’s owner, as they had both failed in their duty as operator and owner to maintain the vehicle.
Fortunately, this case does serve as an example of how victims and their loved ones can receive compensation for the injuries they suffer in such accidents. While a victim may have an auto policy which provides personal injury protection (PIP) benefits to cover medical expenses, truck accidents often involve economic and non-economic losses that go beyond the ability of PIP benefits to cover. In such circumstances, it is key that a victim and their family consider the possibility of suing a liable party.
What Kinds of Maintenance Issues May Cause an Accident?
Almost any type of truck accident may be caused by improper maintenance or repair. It’s often better to consider what sorts of maintenance issues for trucks may result in injury to the driver of a smaller vehicle. The following list can act as a good reference for a variety of common mechanical failures and what accidents they may cause.
Trailers that are improperly hooked up or maintained
Drivers who operate tractor-trailers and their employers need to ensure that their trailers are properly loaded and secured to their vehicle before transit begins. Without proper routine inspection before and during a journey to ensure that cargo is properly secured, drivers risk losing control over trailers in the midst of travel, which may lead to either lost cargo spilling onto the road or to the entire rig jackknifing or overturning.
Worn or bald tires
Traveling hundreds if not thousands of miles every week and month, truck drivers are always at risk of their tires blowing out mid-transit. This is why drivers need to always ensure that their tires are not showing signs of wear or damage when they are preparing to begin their next delivery, and when they stop to either rest or drop off cargo. Otherwise, there may be a catastrophic loss of multiple tires during transit, and even a single tire loss will result in a sudden loss of control of a truck. In such cases, there is an extreme risk of the driver overturning or colliding with another driver in either a rear-end accident, a t-bone accident, or even an overrun accident.
Improperly maintained or deficient brakes
Brakes are subject to intense wear and tear when used regularly, and the amount of force exercised on truck brakes is well-beyond what most cars’ brakes experience. While usually designed specifically for trucks, these brakes need to be routinely inspected to ensure that they will not fail if a driver needs to stop at a road signal or travel down an incline.
Lack of reflectors or reflective tape
Reflectors and reflective tape serves as a way for other drivers to be able to see a truck well in advance despite low visibility conditions. The headlights of other drivers will reflect light off of them, giving off a visual cue that they need to slow and possibly stop. Without them, drivers are at risk of smaller vehicles colliding with the rear of their trucks or slamming into the side of their trailer, resulting in an underride accident where the top of a car will be ripped off.
Loose or missing mud flaps
Mud flaps help to ensure that a truck will not cause kicked-up dirt and gravel to fly into the windshield of a driver behind the truck. Without them, a truck driver is likely to cause an accident by throwing material back into the face of other drivers, who could have their windshield broken by the debris or have their vision obscured so much that they are unable to stop in time when the truck begins to slow.
Headlights help to ensure that a trucker is able to see clearly during nighttime driving and in low visibility conditions such as fog. Without them, a trucker is at far greater risk of colliding with a pedestrian or cyclist who would not be seen by the trucker in time to stop.
Broken or faulty brake lights
Brake lights serve to warn drivers behind a truck that the rig is slowing down, helping to prevent catastrophic, fatal collisions with the rear of a truck’s trailer.
Broken doors, whether on the truck’s main cab or on the truck’s trailer, are highly dangerous to other drivers. If they are unable to close properly or, worse, fall off in the midst of transit, other drivers are at risk of being struck by the doors or the cargo they were meant to hold in place.
Defective or inefficient tie-downs
If a truck has an open top to the area in which cargo is carried, then the law requires that a tarp or similar barrier be placed to ensure that no cargo falls from the top. Typically, these covers will be tied down in some way, and it is the responsibility of the driver, their employer, and the client shipping cargo to ensure that the covers are tied down properly. Otherwise, they risk cargo being thrown loose of the vehicle and injuring other drivers.
What Laws Cover Truck Maintenance?
There are technically two primary forms of regulation that truckers, employers, and truck owners must be concerned with when considering when and how to inspect their commercial motor vehicles. First, there are the federal regulations set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in 49 C.F.R. § 396, covering everything from the minimum frequency of inspections to how long records must be kept for each vehicle a business owns and operates. Second, New Jersey requires that most vehicles undergo regular, two-year inspections. However, those inspections are very general.
The FMCSA’s regulations can be a daunting read, especially if you are a victim who is simply trying to understand if a liable party failed in their required obligations as truck owners and operators. An experienced personal injury lawyer will be able to analyze these regulations for you, helping you to understand how and why a liable party may be held accountable for your injuries. Additionally, the following list will provide some guidance on the regulations relevant to your case.
- § 396.3 – This regulation states that all owners and operators must regularly inspect, repair, and maintain their fleet of vehicles, including the parts and accessories added to them. Additionally, appropriate records must be maintained of these inspections for up to one year if the vehicle remains in service or for six months after the vehicle has left the possession of the inspecting party.
- § 396.5 – This regulation requires that operators ensure that their motor vehicles are properly lubricated and are free of oil and grease leaks.
- § 396.9 – This regulation grants special agents of the FMCSA the power to perform inspections of vehicles mid-transit and mark them as out-of-service if they fail inspection. If they fail inspection, these vehicles cannot be used until sufficient repairs have been performed.
- § 396.11 – This regulation requires that drivers regularly inspect their vehicles at the end of daily travel and report any findings that might indicate an unsafe vehicle. It lists what must be inspected at the end of each day, and it also requires that companies which rent out these vehicles have a means to receive reports from those who have rented them.
- § 396.12 – This regulation effectively states what § 396.11 said, but reiterates it for the benefit of companies which lease trucks. Effectively the same rules apply from § 396.11, but it may be important to cite a violation by a rental company under this regulation rather than the other.
- § 396.13 – This regulation states that a driver must be satisfied that their vehicle is in good, safe working order before beginning to drive each day. This effectively means that a driver must judge that their vehicle is safe, and if it proves not to be, it is partially the fault of the driver.
- § 396.15 – This regulation sets particular requirements for operators and owners of vehicles engaged in driveaway-towaway operations.
- § 396.17 – This regulation sets the terms and requirements for annual inspections.
- § 396.19 – This regulation sets the qualifications for a proper annual inspector of commercial motor vehicles.
- § 396.21 – This regulation states what records of annual inspections should include and how they should be retained.
- § 396.23 – This regulation allows state-mandated inspections to be used to substitute federal annual inspections if they are deemed to be equivalent.
- § 396.25 – This regulation sets the required qualifications for a brake inspector who will perform regular brake inspections of trucks.
Obviously, this is all a lot to take in. However, as mentioned before, a personal injury lawyer experienced in truck accidents caused by maintenance issues will be able to investigate the matters relating to these regulations. Such a legal expert will be incredibly helpful in understanding how these regulations apply to a driver and truck company and how they may have failed to meet the standards required of them.
How Will All of This Affect My Lawsuit?
All of these regulations and possible maintenance issues are key to understanding who may be responsible for your accident. The required inspections ensure that defects and safety violations can be detected at any point of the process, and if an accident occurs as a result of them, it is fairly easy to identify who may hold blame for the accident.
These regulations mean that there are possibly many different people who are liable for your accident. A driver, employer, owner, inspector, and rental company can all be held accountable for misconduct during the inspection process which leads to an accident.
Once you have spoken with an attorney and begun the process of filing a suit, your attorney will be able to track down and request the records for these inspections. As mentioned, companies are required to maintain a diligent record of the inspections performed by them and any drivers under their care. If they fail to do so, not only will it result in a possible sanction by federal regulators, but it may also show further evidence of negligence.
During pretrial negotiations, your attorney will be able to present the inspection reports and identify when a faulty piece of equipment should have been identified. Typically, companies representing themselves and their drivers will settle rather than proceed to court if shown proof that they are liable for an accident occurring. This means that you are far more likely to receive a settlement offer rather than having to sit through litigation that may take years to be decided.
Of course, the fact that there can be multiple liable parties means that how you receive compensation may be complicated. Under New Jersey’s modified comparative fault law, the courts are expected to determine liability between the parties involved and assign a percentage of required compensation in proportion to that liability. This means that you will receive compensation in different amounts from different individuals, and that usually means you will be dealing with several different insurers to determine how you will receive from each of them.
Frequently Asked Questions
Generally speaking, you will be considering the truck driver, their employer, inspectors who may have failed in their duties, and rental companies if the truck was rented. There may be further parties to consider, but generally, these are the groups who are understood under federal regulations to have various duties and obligations during the inspection process.
If you win your case, the court will by that point have divided liability between the guilty parties. They will rule on what is effective compensation in your case for both economic and non-economic losses such as pain and suffering, and allocate the amounts to be paid in proportion to the parties’ liability in order to fulfill the full compensation. From there, you will generally receive payment from the parties’ insurers, as they will generally have liability insurance for situations like these.
What Should I Do if I’ve Been Injured in a Truck Accident Caused by Maintenance and Equipment Issues?
If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident with a truck that may have been improperly maintained, contact Rosenblum Law for a free, no-obligation consultation today. Our experienced personal injury attorneys can analyze the situation and negotiate the best possible settlement for you. Call 888-815-3649 or email us today.