Motorists across the country experience anxiety from the daunting prospect of sharing the roads with large trailer trucks. These physically imposing vehicles are capable of considerable destruction, and despite heavy regulation, the profit-driven trucking industry is notorious for overworking its drivers. Sadly, the result is sometimes death and destruction at the hands of a tired driver.
Whether victims of industry practices or truck drivers’ failures in personal responsibility, motorists injured in a truck accident caused by driver fatigue experience a grave and avoidable injustice. Whenever one is injured by another’s carelessness, their hope for justice lies in seeking just compensation. Though the system doesn’t make recovery of such compensation easy, injured motorists can prevail by hiring an experienced personal injury attorney committed to aggressively fighting for them.
Options for Compensation When Involved in a Truck Accident Caused by Driver Fatigue
Immediately after an accident, drivers should be wary of the various steps both mandated by law and crucial to establishing a viable claim. Involvement in a truck accident caused by driver fatigue is bound to cause considerable injuries requiring compensation. Affected motorists seeking to recover compensation for their injuries in New York have four principal paths to financial recovery.
- No-fault or Personal Injury Protection (PIP) Benefits
- Third-party Insurance Claims
- Filing a Lawsuit
- Small Claims Court
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No-fault or Personal Injury Protection (PIP) Benefits
The primary option for New York motorists injured in a traffic accident arises from New York’s no-fault insurance laws. New York’s state law requires registered motorists to carry an insurance policy providing personal injury protection (PIP) benefits. In the event of a traffic accident, PIP benefits permit insured motorists and certain other parties, such as the motorist’s passengers, to recover compensation regardless of who was at fault for causing the accident. A drawback of the PIP option is that it imposes significant restrictions on compensation policyholders can recover:
- Up to $50,000 for each of the policyholder, the policyholder’s passengers, and any pedestrians hit by the policyholder’s vehicle
- Medical expenses, lost wages, and other reasonable and necessary accident-related expenses
- Non-monetary expenses, such as pain and suffering
- Property damage
This is especially pertinent for those involved in a truck accident. It is our attorneys’ experience that drivers involved in truck accidents opt to go outside of the no-fault system because truck accidents customarily inflict injuries far more serious than what PIP benefits can compensate for. Going outside of the no-fault system entails pursuing a process where fault is taken into consideration, namely a third-party insurance claim or a lawsuit.
The Lawsuit Threshold
Not all are permitted by New York’s law to pursue a claim outside of the no-fault system. Motorists wishing to go outside of the no-fault system must satisfy the legal threshold under ISC §51-5104. This provision requires such motorists’ injuries to be sufficiently serious, defined by 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
If one’s injuries are not sufficiently serious, they may still go outside the no-fault system, provided they satisfy one of the following conditions:
- Having covered expenses that exceed the PIP benefits’ $50,000 cap
- Sustaining injuries resulting in death
- Not having insurance that complies with New York law’s minimum coverage requirements
Third-party Insurance Claims
A motorist’s first option outside of the no-fault system is a third-party insurance claim. This is a claim for compensation filed with the other driver’s auto insurance company. The insurance company’s claims adjuster, upon receipt of the claim, will investigate the accident and determine each driver’s proportion of fault for causing the accident. A major benefit of this claim is that it permits motorists to pursue non-monetary expenses, such as pain and suffering.
Our attorneys repeatedly stress that while a third-party insurance claim appears straightforward on its face, it is not advisable to pursue this option without the guidance of a competent attorney. Inherent to these claims are pitfalls which, if not navigated intelligently, can severely diminish one’s prospect of just compensation.
In the truck accident context, a significant wrinkle is that responsible parties can include both the truck driver and the trucking company they work for. An attorney experienced in managing truck accident claims can guide a client through the process of figuring out which insurance company to file a claim against. One must also keep in mind that insurance claims adjusters work for the insurance companies which have ample motive to not pay motorists making third-party claims. Attorneys can prove useful in the third-party claims process in a few ways, including:
- Preparing clients for the claims adjuster’s investigatory interview
- Negotiating a fair settlement
- Holding the claims adjuster accountable
Filing a Lawsuit
An alternative to a third-party insurance claim is filing a lawsuit. This option is substantially similar to a third-party claim insofar as it allows motorists to pursue non-monetary expenses, involves an allegation that the other driver was guilty of misconduct, and involves an inquiry concerning who was at fault for causing the accident. A significant difference between a lawsuit and a third-party claim is that a lawsuit involves an impartial decision maker, usually a judge or a jury. Often the benefits of impartiality lead motorists to prefer a lawsuit over a third-party claim despite the procedural complexities a lawsuit customarily involves.
Experienced attorneys offer many benefits in handling a lawsuit, including extensive knowledge of procedure, investigatory expertise, and effective advocacy in a courtroom setting. While the statute of limitations gives victims up to three years from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit, it is advisable to contact an attorney much sooner, in part because evidence becomes much harder to gather with the passage of time.
Small Claims Court
Small claims court is a branch of the judiciary known to be far more accessible to self-represented litigants. The procedural rules are relaxed, though the simplicity comes at a cost, namely its limited scope. UCT §18-1801 limits small claims court’s jurisdiction to monetary claims, such as lost wages and medical expenses, in amounts less than $5,001. This option is frequently used for vehicle damage claims, which are not typically covered by no-fault insurance. In our experience, expenses arising from truck accidents often exceed the $5,001 cap.
Proving Fault in a Truck Accident Caused by Driver Fatigue
Truck accidents caused by driver fatigue pose unique dangers. Drowsy driving closely mirrors driving while intoxicated, with afflicted drivers likely to lose focus and experience reduced reaction times. These effects are especially dangerous where the driver is operating a large trailer truck because their margin for error is greatly reduced and their vehicle carries a greater capacity for harm, even at low rates of speed. Driving such trucks is also simply a more difficult task than operating a normal automobile and therefore requires more focus even for drivers who are not fatigued. For these reasons and more, drowsy driving by a truck driver creates an unacceptable risk of grievous harm to motorists.
Pursuing a claim outside of the no-fault system involves an inquiry concerning each driver’s level of fault for causing the accident. Both insurance claims adjusters and courts ask whether either driver was negligent. A driver is negligent when they are required by the law to act in a certain way, they fail to act in that way, and this failure to act is the proximate cause of another’s injuries. New York observes a pure comparative fault model whereby the decision maker will apportion a percentage of fault to each driver, and either driver can recover compensation even if they carry more of the fault.
Driver vs. Company Liability: Doctrine of Respondeat Superior
In truck accidents, the fault inquiry can be divided between the two parties who could bear liability for their negligence contributing to causing the accident: truck drivers and the companies for which they drive. More often than not, the trucking company rather than the individual truck driver will be the focus of a negligence lawsuit following a truck accident caused by driving fatigue, and the trucking company’s liability insurance will likely pay any damages. This owes to the legal doctrine of “respondeat superior,” also known as “vicarious liability.” Lundberg v. State of New York explains the general rule that where a traffic accident is caused by an employee’s negligence while acting in the scope of their employment, the employer will be liable.
In the truck accident context, the truck driver is almost always acting within the scope of their employment at the time of the accident. Trucking companies often seek to avoid liability by claiming their drivers are independent contractors rather than employees. However, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations have undermined this defense by eliminating many of the distinctions between independent contractors and employees. This is not to say that truck drivers cannot also be held individually liable for their negligence in causing a truck accident. The proper defendants to this type of lawsuit and the appropriate apportionment of fault depends on the specific circumstances of one’s case.
Proving a Truck Driver’s Fault
Fortunately, proving fault in a truck accident caused by driver fatigue is facilitated by the nature of the trucking industry itself. Legal regulation of the trucking industry requires truck drivers to document their activities in what is known as a “logbook,” and trailer trucks ordinarily contain an electronic logging device (ELD), which reliably records the driver’s activities. These mechanisms coupled with other forms of evidence constitute a built-in paper trail which can be used to prove the circumstances leading up to the accident, which could, in turn, indicate the driver’s negligence by driving while fatigued.
Our comprehensive fault investigation begins with scrutinizing the logbook and consulting the information contained on the ELD to see how long a truck driver has been on the road. Despite the legal requirements, drivers may falsify their logbook entries in order to skirt regulatory restrictions and meet their demanding company deadlines so we look for entry irregularities. In building a picture of the driver’s activities immediately preceding the accident, we also consult other forms of evidence, including:
- Witness accounts
- Fuel logs
- Phone records
- Weigh station bills
Truck driving is a demanding occupation, and truck drivers sometimes turn to drugs and alcohol to help them cope with the job’s many challenges. For this reason, secondary sources of evidence could include:
- Medical records
- Police reports
- Toxicology screenings
All of these inquiries usually reveal a comprehensive picture of the driver’s activities preceding the accident as well as their state at the time of the accident. Assuming the driver indeed drove while fatigued, this picture should offer thorough, tangible proof of their impaired condition. Driving while fatigued is legally recognized as a form of negligent driving. This is especially true in the case of truck drivers. The law imposes a duty on truck drivers to take precautions to protect their fellow motorists. Fatigued truck drivers that fail to take ample precautions breach this duty and may be held liable for these acts and omissions.
Trucking Company Liability
Another layer to the fault inquiry is consideration of the trucking company’s responsibility. A trucking company can incur liability for an accident caused by a truck driver negligently driving while fatigued. Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, this is often the case regardless of wrongdoing on the part of the company. A trucking company can also be held liable for the accident based on its own negligence. Some ways in which a trucking company can be negligent in this context include:
- Inadequate logbook training
- Poor enforcement of logbook requirements
- Encouraging drivers to falsify logbook records
An instructive example of a successful drowsy driving truck accident case levied against the trucking company of the offending driver is Elbar Inc. v. Claussen. Though this case was decided in Texas, many of the arguments concerning the company’s liability would be valid in New York.
The parents of William Dean filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Elbar Inc., a trucking company contracted to deliver mail for the United States Postal Service, when one of its drivers, Bullock, negligently veered into William’s lane while driving a tractor-trailer truck, knocking William off his motorcycle and killing him. The case for Elbar’s negligence was primarily based on the contention that its “sleeper-driver” method was dangerous and was a proximate cause of the accident. The sleeper-driver method involves a truck being operated by a team of two drivers that alternate between driving and sleeping. The Claussens, William’s parents, used an expert who testified that this method lends itself to fatigue, with Elbar being the only trucking company using this method at the time. The Claussens also cited Elbar’s carelessness in providing only one week of training for drivers, when the Department of Transportation recommends at least eight weeks, as well as the fact that Elbar’s drivers’ logs were not compliant with legal requirements. Elbar’s leadership was also shown to have no concern for the management of driver fatigue.
Elbar defended itself by pointing out that Bullock was in compliance with the legal driving log requirements on the trip in question, though the court acknowledged the insufficiency of the driving logs made confirming this contention difficult. Elbar also cited its otherwise good safety record and its policy of firing its drivers for being at-fault for a traffic accident while driving its trucks. Ultimately, the jury deemed the weight of the evidence sufficient to support a finding that Elbar was negligent. The court reasoned Elbar was not compliant with regulatory standards, and this misalignment with legal and industry standards should have prompted Elbar’s awareness that an accident such as the fatal one which occurred was likely to happen as a result of their questionable practices. The jury awarded the Claussens $300,000 in damages (worth approximately $632,860 in today’s dollars).
Alternative Theories of Negligence
A final point about proving fault in a truck accident caused by driver fatigue is that claimants are not limited to one theory of negligence when bringing a personal injury lawsuit against an allegedly negligent driver. Though the scope of this article is truck accidents caused by drowsy driving, these accidents almost always involve additional factors, mainly violations of other road rules or intoxication. For example, the negligence of a drowsy truck driver who falls asleep at the wheel and veers into the opposite lane of traffic is twofold. While they are negligent for drowsy driving, they are also negligent for driving on the wrong side of the road, a form of negligence provable without consideration of the driver’s fatigue. Experienced attorneys are capable of formulating multiple theories of liability to give their clients the best chance of recovering compensation.
New York’s state law regulates truck driving by requiring the use of logbooks. NY Transp L § 212 (2019) requires all truck drivers to “keep and carry on the vehicle records showing the day and hour when and the place where he went and was released from duty, whether in this state or outside of this state.” Violators of logbook requirements risk criminal liability. NY Transp L § 213 (2019) places violators in jeopardy of a misdemeanor offense, a $200 fine, and/or six months in jail.
New York’s logbook requirements mirror federal guidelines, which provide that every 24 hours, drivers must log the following:
- Number of miles travelled in the past 24-hour period
- Number of hours spent driving in the past 24-hour period
- Number of hours spent off duty in the past 24-hour period
- Number of hours worked in the past seven day period
- Daily vehicle inspection report
These detailed entries make logbooks a potent source of evidence when investigating and proving fault in a truck accident caused by driver fatigue. Identifying violations of these logbook requirements, whether it be an absence of information or the falsification of records, can be a sound basis for a persuasive argument that the offending truck driver was behaving irresponsibly and without regard for other motorists’ safety.
How Common Are Truck Accidents Caused by Driver Fatigue?
The Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research reports 21,135 truck accidents in New York in 2019 alone, 80 of which resulted in fatalities. The State of New York also saw 1,608 drowsy driving accidents in 2019. Predictably, truck accidents involving driver fatigue occur with frightening frequency. In a report to Congress, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) estimated from a nearly three-year nationwide study of accident statistics that 13% of truck drivers involved in these accidents were fatigued.
Frequently Asked Questions
The State of New York has adopted Part 395 of Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which contain a set of rules and regulations governing the rest and drive times that most truck drivers must observe. One such regulation holds that truck drivers may only be on-duty for a maximum of 14 consecutive hours. They can drive a maximum of 11 hours during this 14-hour shift, but they can not drive more than 8 consecutive hours without taking at least a 30-minute break.
Yes. There are no laws preventing a trucking company from firing a truck driver when the driver’s negligence causes an accident. Such drivers are often fired as a result of causing an accident because the doctrine of respondeat superior exposes trucking companies to liability for their drivers’ negligence while acting within the scope of their employment.
Driver fatigue, also known as drowsy driving, is frequently compared to intoxicated driving because the two states have similar effects on afflicted drivers. All manner of crucial driving functions become impaired when one is driving with insufficient sleep, including judgment, reaction time, and coordination. In the worst instance, drivers can literally fall asleep at the wheel, often resulting in dangerous collisions, particularly when a driver veers into the opposite lane of traffic.
Yes, but usually only indirectly. Logbook violations expose truck drivers to criminal liability, as they constitute misdemeanor offenses. Ordinarily, a criminal logbook violation only indirectly affects a personal injury lawsuit arising from a truck accident caused by driver fatigue. Logbook violation convictions, both prior and present, can be forceful evidence demonstrating negligence on the part of truck drivers and their companies. Other than on this evidentiary note, the two causes of action are unlikely to intermingle in significant ways.
No. Trucking companies can be liable for their drivers’ negligence in a couple of ways. One way is pursuant to the doctrine of respondeat superior, which holds employers liable for employee actions in the scope of their employment. This type of liability does not require wrongdoing on the part of the trucking company. A second way is liability for the trucking company’s own negligence which might have indirectly caused the accident. For example, a trucking company that does not adequately train its drivers and financially incentivizes logbook violations has carelessly put other motorists in danger and can be held liable for its negligence, assuming its driver caused the accident due to such carelessness.
Who Should You Contact if You’ve Been in a Truck Accident Caused by Driver Fatigue?
Pursuing compensation for injuries suffered at the hands of a fatigued truck driver is particularly complicated by the multiple layers of fault and general complexities of both insurance processes and legal procedures. The attorneys at Rosenblum Law have a decades-long track record of compassionately and expertly securing compensation for injured motorists. E-mail or call 888-815-3649 for a free consultation.