Intuitively, distracted driving seems to be one of the most common forms of driver irresponsibility, likely due to its visibility. On a daily basis, motorists across the United States encounter distracted drivers, from the busy parent attending to a crying child in the back seat to the business person alternating between talking on their hands-free device and drinking coffee. The stakes are raised when the inattentive driver is behind the wheel of a massive trailer truck, a monstrous vehicle capable of enormous destruction.
Though many of us are occasionally guilty of irresponsibly dividing our attention while behind the wheel, distracted truck driving is especially problematic. By consulting an experienced personal injury attorney, drivers injured in a truck accident caused by distracted driving take a significant first step towards holding irresponsible truckers accountable and getting the compensation they justly deserve.
What Is Distracted Driving?
As the name suggests, distracted driving is committing one’s attention to something other than driving while behind the wheel. Common distractions that take attention away from the road include:
- Talking on the phone
- Using a portable electronic device (texting, emailing, social media)
- Eating and drinking
- Personal grooming
- Adjusting the navigation or other systems
- Tending to others in the vehicle
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) breaks distracted driving down into three categories:
- Visual Distractions: anything that takes one’s eyes off the road
- Cognitive Distractions: anything that takes one’s mind off the road
- Manual Distractions: anything that takes one’s hands off the wheel
Certain aspects of a truck driver’s job, such as fatigue and boredom, make truck drivers more susceptible to giving in to distractions. While driving, truck drivers are most commonly distracted by things like:
- Distractions on the road (billboards, landmarks, etc.)
- Electronic devices
- Navigation devices
- Food and drink
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Cell Phone Use as a Distraction
Cell phone use is unique among the various forms of distracted driving for two main reasons. First, relative to other forms of distracted driving, cell phone use is considered more commonplace. Second, New York’s state law punishes those who use their cell phones while driving, regardless of whether or not they cause an accident in the process.
The NHTSA reported the results of a survey where 8% of the respondents admitted to using smartphone apps while driving. A shocking 56% of these app users claimed to believe using their smartphone while driving has no negative influence on their driving. The agency also captured the extent of the danger of driving while distracted by a cell phone in this statistic:
Given the increased risk of serious injury posed by distracted truck drivers, both federal and state laws address their cell phone use. A Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) rule restricts commercial vehicle drivers to only using a mobile phone in a hands-free mode. Holding one’s phone, reaching for one’s phone, and dialing one’s phone are all restricted activities. Fines can include driver disqualification, a $2,750 fine for drivers, and an $11,000 fine for the offending driver’s trucking company.
New York’s state law supplements this federal rule by addressing commercial drivers separately within §§ 1225(c) and (d). The first section (§ 1225(c)) defines “using a mobile telephone” more stringently than it is defined for ordinary motorists. Commercial drivers cannot “hold a mobile telephone to, or in the immediate proximity of, the user’s ear,” “dial or answer a mobile telephone by pressing more than a single button,” or “reach for a mobile telephone in a manner that requires such person to maneuver so that he or she is no longer in a seated driving position.” It also prohibits commercial vehicle companies from allowing or requiring drivers to use a handheld mobile telephone while driving. The second section (§ 1225(d)) similarly prevents commercial vehicle companies from allowing or requiring drivers to use a portable electronic device while driving.
Options for Compensation When Involved in a Truck Accident Caused by Distracted Driving
Involvement in a truck accident caused by distracted driving is justifiably frustrating for a number of reasons. Distracted driving, especially by a truck driver, is irresponsible and avoidable. What’s more, all of these stresses associated with such an accident are compounded by the seemingly impossible complexity of New York’s comprehensive system for recovering compensation for one’s injuries. Options for compensation when involved in a truck accident in New York can be simplified down to four options:
- No-fault or Personal Injury Protection (PIP) Benefits
- Third-party Insurance Claims
- Filing a Lawsuit
- Small Claims Court
No-Fault or Personal Injury Protection Benefits
No fault or personal injury protection (PIP) benefits is an insured New York motorist’s first option for recovering compensation after a traffic accident. New York is a “no-fault state.” This means registered New York motorists are required to carry auto insurance that includes no-fault coverage, which requires insurance companies to provide coverage in the event of a traffic accident regardless of who was at fault for causing the accident. The key features of no-fault or personal injury protection benefits include:
- Each covered party is eligible for up to $50,000 of monetary expenses regardless of fault
- Monetary expenses include medical expenses, lost wages, and other necessary accident-related expenses
- Covered parties include the policyholder, the policyholder’s passengers, and pedestrians injured by the policyholder’s vehicle
No-fault benefits also have significant limitations leading many injured motorists to consider going outside of the no-fault system to pursue other options with less restrictions. No-fault coverage’s limitations include:
- Non-monetary expenses, such as pain and suffering, not covered
- Property damage not covered
- Coverage per covered party is capped at $50,000
Despite all of its positives, no-fault coverage features significant drawbacks leading many injured motorists to explore options outside of the no-fault system. Motorists injured in a truck accident frequently suffer injuries costing more than the $50,000 PIP limit, or the trauma of these accidents makes them want to seek compensation for their pain and suffering, a non-monetary expense not covered under the no-fault plan.
A motorist’s options outside of the no-fault system are filing a third-party insurance claim or filing a lawsuit. New York’s state law, however, does not permit all injured motorists to go outside of the no-fault system. To pursue these options, New York motorists must first satisfy the lawsuit threshold. ISC §51-5104 provides registered New York motorists may pursue options outside of the no-fault system if they sustain injuries that are “sufficiently serious,” defined in ISC §51-5102(d) to include:
- significant disfigurement
- bone fracture
- permanent limitation of use of a body organ or member
- significant limitation of use of a body function or system, or
- substantially full disability for 90 days.
Motorists whose injuries don’t fall within any of these categories may yet go outside of the no-fault system if they:
- Have covered expenses that exceed the PIP benefits’ $50,000 cap
- Sustain injuries resulting in death
- Don’t have insurance that complies with New York law’s minimum coverage requirements
Only by satisfying the lawsuit threshold or falling within one of the other categories can injured motorists pursue compensation outside of the no-fault system.
Third-Party Insurance Claim
One option for injured motorists that satisfy the lawsuit threshold or one of the other sufficient circumstances is a third-party insurance claim. This option entails filing a claim with the other driver’s insurance company, or in the case of a truck accident, filing a claim under the trucking company’s insurance policy. Upon receiving a third-party insurance claim, the insurance company will assign an insurance claims adjuster who will investigate the claim, determine each party’s proportion of fault for causing the accident, and ultimately decide whether and how much the claimant will be compensated.
Third-party insurance claims are attractive to injured motorists because they don’t have a limit on how much a person can recover and also permit them to pursue non-monetary expenses, such as for pain and suffering. They are also well-liked for their simplicity relative to the other main option outside of the no-fault system, filing a lawsuit. Insurance companies take responsibility for processing a third-party claim and only require that claimants participate in the insurance adjuster’s investigation, usually by way of an interview about the accident.
However, the procedural simplicity comes at a price. A third-party insurance claim also features an unfortunate conflict of interest. The insurance claims adjuster, who is responsible for assigning fault and determining compensation, works for the insurance company, which ordinarily wants to pay out as little as possible. This is just one reason why it’s important to hire an experienced personal injury attorney when pursuing a third-party insurance claim. An attorney with extensive knowledge of the claims process can hold insurance adjusters accountable, and can also help with other aspects of the claims process, including:
- Arguing that one’s injury is “significant” enough to satisfy the threshold requirement
- Preparing one for the recorded statement they will make to the insurance agent investigating the claim
- Negotiating with the insurance company’s attorney
- Negotiating a fair settlement
Filing a Lawsuit
Another option for motorists going outside of the no-fault system is to file a lawsuit. A lawsuit is a claim for compensation filed with the court. It amounts to accusing another party of being at-fault for causing the accident and claiming they should therefore be responsible for paying the injured motorist’s resulting expenses.
Like with a third-party insurance claim, in a lawsuit, motorists can recover both monetary and non-monetary expenses and are not limited in the amount of compensation they can recover. They also overlap in that a decision maker will be determining each party’s proportion of fault for causing the accident. For a lawsuit, the decision maker is a judge or a jury.
A lawsuit also differs from a third-party insurance claim in significant ways. First, a lawsuit is generally more complicated procedurally than a third-party claim. Lawsuits can involve months of hearings and stacks of paperwork. Though these aspects are usually handled by an attorney, they can feel taxing to the person who is also struggling to recover physically. On the other hand, a lawsuit offers an element of fairness that third-party claims seem to lack. In a lawsuit, whether and how much one will be compensated is determined by an impartial judge or jury without a personal stake in the case’s outcome.
As with a third-party insurance claim, motorists pursuing a lawsuit should consult a knowledgeable and experienced personal injury attorney. Lawsuits are complicated, especially when a trucking company with considerable resources is involved, so it is not advisable for one to pursue this option on one’s own. Our attorneys frequently remark on the risks of not hiring an attorney when pursuing a lawsuit. Many motorists that don’t hire an attorney, usually in the interest of saving money, unfortunately end up missing out on tens of thousands of dollars they could have recovered had they been represented. The worst part is that these motorists often lose out on far more money than what they saved by not hiring an attorney.
Small Claims Court
A final option for recovering compensation after a truck accident is small claims court. This option is frequently exercised by claimants hoping to recover property damage claims as a supplement to their no-fault benefits and claimants who were uninsured at the time of the accident. UCT §18-1801 limits small claims court to monetary claims in amounts less than $5,001. Non-monetary claims, such as for pain and suffering, may not be brought here. Small claims court is a popular option for those wishing to represent themselves in court, as the procedural rules are relaxed. In the truck accident context, small claims court is unlikely to be sufficient to compensate injured drivers for all that they are justly owed.
Who Is Liable for a Truck Accident Caused by Distracted Driving: the Driver or the Trucking Company?
Liability for a truck accident caused by distracted driving will almost always rest with the trucking company rather than with the truck driver. This is because of the doctrine of respondeat superior, more commonly known as “vicarious liability.” Lundberg v. State of New York defines vicarious liability in the traffic accident context. For truck accidents specifically, the rule is that a trucking company is generally liable when its driver’s negligence causes an accident, as long as the driver was acting within the scope of their employment when they were negligent. Trucking companies are therefore usually liable for accidents caused by their driver’s negligence because these accidents typically occur when the driver is driving for the trucking company and thus “acting within the scope of their employment.”
This is not to say there don’t exist circumstances under which a truck driver rather than the trucking company would be the proper person to pursue in an insurance claim or lawsuit. This area of the law is complicated so consult a skilled personal injury attorney who can assess the circumstances of a case and decide how best to proceed.
Proving Fault in a Truck Accident Caused by Distracted Driving
A third-party insurance claim or lawsuit involves accusing another of being at-fault for causing the accident. When determining who was at-fault, both insurance claims adjusters and courts ask whether either party was negligent. Negligence is a legal concept that can be approximated to carelessness. A person or entity is negligent when they are legally required to act in a certain way, they fail to act in that way, and their failure to act causes another person’s injuries. So, a truck driver can be negligent when the law requires them to act in a certain way, such as taking care to pay attention to the road, they fail to act in this way, such as by reading a text while driving, and their failure to act in this way causes another’s injuries, such as reading the text causing them to rear-end the car in front, giving that car’s driver whiplash.
New York observes the legal principle of comparative fault, also known as contributory negligence. This principle acknowledges that more than one person or entity can be responsible for causing an accident. In practice, claims adjusters and courts assign a percentage of fault to each involved party. New York is referred to as a “pure comparative fault” state. This means that in New York, each party involved in an accident can recover compensation regardless of the percentage of blame they carry, as long as they are not 100% to blame. In other words, a driver can be up to 99% to blame for the accident and still recover compensation.
Proving the Truck Driver’s Fault
The difficulty of proving a truck driver was distracted while driving depends on what distraction led the truck driver to cause the accident. Some distractions are easier to prove than others because of the evidence that some types of distractions leave behind.
This point is well illustrated by the relative difficulties of proving a truck driver was distracted by a phone call versus proving the driver was distracted by eating while driving. A phone call can be proved more readily by hard evidence. We could subpoena the truck driver’s phone company and demonstrate conclusively that the truck driver was engaged in a phone call at the precise time of the accident. On the other hand, proving the driver was eating while driving can be more difficult. Photo evidence from an inspection of the truck could show a food wrapper on the seat or food spilled in the cabin, but this still doesn’t mean the food was the cause of the driver’s distraction.
In any event, it is vital to secure the services of a practiced personal injury attorney experienced in gathering and presenting evidence in these sorts of cases. Our comprehensive investigative approach involves interviewing eyewitnesses, assessing both vehicles, hiring accident reconstructionists, consulting experts, examining medical records, and scrutinizing police reports. Two other sources of evidence we frequently consult in truck accident cases are the truck driver’s logbook and the truck’s “event data recorder.”
Truck drivers are required by law to take detailed notes in their logbooks concerning the time they spend driving and resting. We often consult the offending driver’s logbook, as it can reveal evidence that the driver was fatigued, which could contribute to an argument that they were distracted. Trucks are also ordinarily equipped with electronic devices called “event data recorders,” which can record data such as speed and braking. This data can be used in a multitude of ways, such as to reconstruct the accident and to demonstrate aspects of a truck driver’s faulty driving.
Proving the Trucking Company’s Fault
While trucking companies are typically liable when their drivers’ negligence causes accidents while they are acting within the scope of their employment, trucking companies can also be liable for their own negligent acts that may have contributed to causing the accident. This primarily manifests in the distracted driving context when company policy contributes to making the truck driver distracted. Some examples of policies that can have this effect include:
- Encouraging drivers to drive for longer than the time limits the law places on consecutive time spent truck driving
- Requiring drivers to use certain technology, such as computers or communication devices, while driving
- Not giving drivers sufficient opportunities to break for necessities, such as food
Ordinarily, the trucking company’s independent fault is more difficult to prove than the truck driver’s fault. This is because it requires a deeper level of investigation. Though we can examine company policy and employee handbooks, trucking companies often know their policies are illegal or wrong, so their misconduct will be reflected by their actions rather than by their explicit policies and written materials. This sort of evidence can be challenging to collect. Nevertheless, holding the trucking company liable for its own negligence can be a viable option.
An illustrative example of vicarious liability and the types of evidence presented in distracted driving truck accident cases is Yao v. World Wide Travel of Greater N.Y. Ltd. Though this case technically centers around a bus driver’s negligence, a large truck was involved, and the general principles apply.
On March 12, 2011, Williams, an employee of World Wide Travel of Greater New York Ltd., was driving a bus full of tourists from Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut to Chinatown in Manhattan. The tourists had all planned their trips with Sunflower Express, a travel agency. Sunflower Express contracted with Mohegan Sun Casino, which had in turn hired World Wild Travel to transport the tourists. While on Interstate 95 near the Bronx, New York, Williams’s bus collided with the guardrail on the right hand side of the road. The bus flipped onto its side, sliding 100 feet before striking a pole, which penetrated 36 feet into the bus’s cabin. This tragic accident killed 15 passengers and injured another 17. After the accident, Williams maintained that he crashed into the guardrail because he had been cut off by a trailer truck owned by Webster Trucking Corp. and driven by Webster’s employee, Joshua Reid.
Following the accident were various negligence and wrongful death lawsuits, all combined under a single case name, Yao v. World Wide Travel of Greater N.Y. Ltd. The lawsuit included claims by multiple passengers against various parties, including:
- Williams: the bus driver
- World Wide Travel of Greater New York Ltd. and World Wide Tours of Greater New York (World Wide): the bus owners and Williams’s employer
- Sunflower Express: the travel agency that sold the tickets
- Joshua Reid: the driver of the trailer truck Williams claimed to have cut off his bus
- Webster Trucking Corp: owners of the trailer truck and Joshua Reid’s employer
As noted earlier, when a driver, while acting within the scope of their employment, is negligent in a way that causes a traffic accident, their employer and/or the owner of the vehicle they are driving can be held liable under the principle of vicarious liability. In this case, World Wide Travel, Webster Trucking Corp., and Sunflower Express were all included in the lawsuit on the basis that they were vicariously liable. World Wide Travel was included because Williams crashed their bus while driving for work purposes as a World Wide employee. Webster Trucking Corp. was accused of being liable for their employee, Joshua Reid’s supposed negligence in cutting off the bus while driving Webster’s trailer truck for work purposes. Sunflower was accused of being vicariously liable for Williams’s negligence in crashing the bus.
Sunflower actually disputed the claim that they were vicariously liable for Williams’s negligence, and they asked the court to dismiss the claims against them. They argued that they did not own the bus and did not employ Williams to drive the bus. They also cited case law such as Aronov v Bruins Transp., Inc., in which the court said booking agents are not responsible for the negligence of independent contractors such as hotels and bus companies. World Wide Travel, the bus company, would have been an independent contractor of Sunflower in this case. They also pointed out they had not hired Williams nor World Wide Travel; Mohegan Sun Casino had done so.
The bus passengers disagreed. They argued Sunflower had assumed responsibility for the safe operation of the bus. After all, Sunflower sold the tickets without mentioning the bus company that would transport the tourists was separate from Sunflower. The bus tickets featured Sunflower’s logo. Sunflower also provided a tour guide on the bus who had the explicit role of stopping the bus if it was ever driven in a reckless manner. The passengers’ basic point was that they were led to believe Sunflower would keep them safe, making them liable for Williams’s negligence.
The court disagreed and sided with Sunflower. They reasoned that Sunflower’s actions were not enough for them to have assumed responsibility for keeping the passengers safe. The claims against Sunflower were dismissed because Sunflower was found not vicariously liable for Williams’s negligence in crashing the bus.
Webster Trucking Corp. and Joshua Reid also asked the court to dismiss the claims against them. They argued that Williams’s accusation that Reid had caused the accident by cutting the bus off was disproved by multiple sources of evidence, many of which pointed to the bus crash actually having been the result of Williams’s drowsy and/or distracted driving. The court agreed and dismissed the claims against them. Many of the sources of evidence they utilized, discussed in more detail below, are commonly used to build a successful case against a truck driver whose distracted driving causes a truck accident.
Event Data Recorder Evidence
In the case above, Webster and Reid employed the expertise of an accident reconstruction expert, Ashley L. Dunn, Ph.D. Dr. Dunn examined the event data recorders, or “black boxes,” in both the bus and Webster’s trailer truck. These devices are commonly installed in these types of vehicles for the purpose of recording and regulating the driving activities of their respective drivers. The bus’s device functioned to record the bus’s speed, throttle, and braking. The trailer truck’s device recorded the truck’s minimum, maximum, and average speeds every minute.
After scrutinizing the data on both devices, Dr. Dunn discovered that in the minutes before the bus crashed, the bus was traveling 68 to 69 miles per hour, while the trailer truck was traveling 66 to 67 miles per hour. Williams, the bus driver, claimed Reid’s truck had cut Williams off. Dr. Dunn concluded that because the truck was consistently traveling slower than the bus, the truck mathematically could not have caught up to, passed, and cut off the bus in the one minute and 36 seconds leading up to the accident.
Dr. Dunn also noticed that the bus’s device did not indicate braking or pull back on the throttle in the time immediately before the bus crashed into the guardrail. He reasoned that if Williams were correct that Reid had cut him off, then he would expect Williams to have stepped on his brakes or to have slowed down by pulling back on the throttle, both things one normally does when another is cutting them off. Since Williams did neither of these things, Dr. Dunn concluded Reid likely did not cut him off.
Tire Mark Evidence
Dr. Dunn also studied the tire marks found on the road directly after the crash, likely photographed by the police officers at the scene. He noted the tire marks showed the bus veering off the road at a 7 degree angle. He said that such a narrow angle would not be expected if Reid had cut Williams off, forcing Williams to swerve. When drivers are forced to swerve off the road, their movement is sudden and at a much wider angle than seven degrees. On this basis, Dr. Dunn suggested the tire marks showed the bus had gradually drifted off the road, indicating perhaps that Williams was drowsy or distracted.
Webster and Reid also relied on the testimony of New York State Police Accident Investigator Shannon M. Alpert. When assessing the physical damage to the vehicles, Investigator Alpert noticed there was not physical damage that one would expect to find had the two vehicles collided. Williams had claimed earlier that Reid’s trailer truck collided with Williams’s bus when Reid cut him off. The physical evidence undermined this claim.
Given the amount of passengers involved, this accident was heavily investigated by the police. While ordinary truck accidents don’t usually receive this level of attention, most times there will be a police report filed. In this case, Webster and Reid cited the fact that the police reports concluded that Webster and Reid were not involved in the accident.
Webster and Reid also pointed to eyewitness accounts of the accident. Several eyewitnesses who were on the road at the time of the accident testified that Reid’s truck had never entered the bus’s lane nor collided with the bus.
A final source of evidence used to prove their lack of involvement was Williams’s inconsistent testimony. In various instances, he told different versions of his story about Reid’s involvement in the accident. At times, Williams claims Reid collided with the bus. At other points, Williams recalled Reid only cutting the bus off, without any collision.
How Common Are Truck Accidents Caused by Distracted Driving?
Truck accidents caused by distracted driving unsurprisingly occur all too frequently. In New York, the Department of Motor Vehicles reports that 2019 saw 4,442 truck accidents caused by distracted driving, nine of which resulted in fatalities. The high rate of truck accidents caused by distracted driving is perhaps a result of mixing a demanding, often boring job with the rise of new hand-held devices.
Frequently Asked Questions
No. When it comes to the law, it is not usually completely accurate to say something always happens. A distracted driver is not always liable for a traffic accident. The question is not just whether the driver was distracted. We must instead ask whether the driver being distracted caused the accident. For example, if a driver is looking at their phone while legally stopped at a red light, they are probably not liable if another vehicle rear-ends them. Though they were distracted, this had nothing to do with causing the accident. Also, New York is a comparative fault state, meaning multiple drivers can be liable for contributing to causing the accident. So, a distracted driver might not be completely to blame for causing an accident either.
Not always. Some forms of distracted driving are illegal in New York. NY Veh & Traf L §§ 1225(c) and 1225(d) make it illegal both to talk on the phone while holding the phone to your ear and to use a portable electronic device while driving, both forms of distracted driving. However, not all forms of distracted driving are technically illegal. Nevertheless, just because something isn’t illegal, it doesn’t mean one can’t be held legally responsible for doing that thing. Distracted driving is negligent driving, and one can be held liable when their distracted driving causes another to be injured.
After a truck accident, many different parties can be held responsible. This includes the truck driver, the trucking company, the State of New York if poor road conditions caused the accident, and car dealers and manufacturers for both the truck and the injured driver’s car. The question of who should be sued after an accident is specific to the facts of one’s accident. Drivers injured in a truck accident should consult an experienced personal injury attorney who can examine the precise facts of their accident and determine the most effective litigation strategy.
Who Should I Contact if I’ve Been in a Truck Accident Caused by Distracted Driving?
Distracted truck drivers pose a unique danger because the consequences of losing control of their vehicles are heightened by these vehicles’ sheer size and destructive potential. Our personal injury attorneys at Rosenblum Law have decades of experience successfully advocating for just compensation for injured motorists. E-mail or call 888-815-3649 for a free consultation.