Guide To Truck Accident Law In California

When you've been in an accident involving a commercial truck, protecting your interests should be a priority as soon as your medical needs have been served. Whether you were the driver of the truck or in a passenger vehicle, you'll soon find that California laws involving trucks can be complex. That's also true whether you were the victim or at least partly at fault. Once trucking companies, insurance agencies and other parties get involved, justice can be elusive for those without proper legal representation.

What To Do Just After An Accident

The actions you should take after an accident are consistent for everyone involved. It does not matter if you were driving a tractor-trailer, a car or a motorcycle, nor whether you believe you were partly at fault or a blameless victim.

  • Who to call: Call 911 if anyone is injured. Otherwise, call local law enforcement -- and don't leave the scene. When a large truck is involved, it's vital that law enforcement is called so that they can begin documenting the scene. Often, the driver's employer and other parties may share responsibility with the truck driver. Because of this, detailed police reports help establish those connections to the accident. Whether on the scene or at home, make sure to contact your insurance agency, regardless of who is at fault.
  • Collecting information: Exchange information with others involved the accident, including license number, name and contact information (including legal address), car registration number and insurance information. When you're collecting this information from a commercial truck driver, make sure he or she gives you commercial driver's license (CDL) information as well.
  • Witnesses and evidence: It's also helpful to collect contact information from any witnesses to the accident. If you can, take photos of the vehicles and the street scene from different angles. Document any physical factors that may have contributed to the accident, like a stop sign obscured by branches. (This kind of evidence has a way of being innocently or deliberately removed before it can be verified, so photos help.)
  • DMV report: In addition, California requires all parties to submit a report within 10 days after the accident, under certain conditions. These circumstances include if an injury or death occurred and if physical damages exceed $1,000. The report needs to be sent to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. If you've retained a lawyer or a trusted insurance agent, that person can submit the report on your behalf.
  • Contact a lawyer: Whether you were the driver of the truck, the passenger vehicle driver or a passenger, it's a good idea to consult an auto accident attorney who can let you know what your responsibilities and options are. If you are the truck driver, moving fast can help you protect your CDL. If you have reason to believe either driver or another party was at fault, a lawyer can advise you whether seeking damages is the next logical step.

Who Is Liable?

Whether you were the driver of the truck or were in another vehicle, you may have the right to seek damages from more than one party. A law firm that deals regularly with auto and truck accidents can help you sort through and identify potential parties to the claim. Among the possible individuals or businesses that have been named in these suits are:

  • Government agencies: Local, state and federal agencies have all been named in traffic accident lawsuits. This usually occurs when something other than the driver's actions or the vehicle itself caused the accident. A faulty traffic light, a poorly maintained road, missing signs, blown-out streetlights, overhead branches that weren't properly trimmed -- all can come into play.
  • The cargo supplier: The goods that the truck was carrying may have been a primary or contributing factor in the accident. If the materials were found to be unsafe for transport, this can be a serious offense. Or the cargo may have been packaged in a dangerous way at the point of origin. When not properly loaded, boxes, pallets and other materials can shift suddenly in the truck, throwing the vehicle's weight off-center.
  • The trailer company: The at-fault vehicle may be one in which the trailer section is separated from the operational part of the truck. If so, the trailer owner may be held liable. This can be the case when the trailer hasn't been properly maintained and has an issue such as blown-out signal lights.
  • The mechanic or technician: If an operational failure with the truck is found to have caused the accident, the individual or garage responsible must be investigated. Sometimes a large company will have an in-house technician, but other times, such companies contract with a garage. Likewise, an independent contractor/driver will likely hire a mechanic for routine maintenance. When negligence is found to be a factor, the garage or independent mechanic may be part of the lawsuit.

Liability Issues For Truck Drivers And Trucking Companies

If you're driving a commercial vehicle and are involved in an accident, generally your employer, rather than you personally, is more legally vulnerable. That's true even if your actions caused the accident.

Unless your driving actions were intentional or done with malice, your trucking company may be held liable. There is sound reasoning behind this legal tradition. A business is responsible for choosing, training and evaluating its employees. A truck driver who is not capable of handling any aspect of his or her job may mean that the company has failed to act responsibly.

Additionally, if the trucking company failed to properly maintain the truck and this contributed to the accident, this may lay blame on the business, not the trucker personally.

However, the employee-employer relationship is not always clear. If you were injured in an accident with a truck, you may need to establish that the driver was employed by the company you wish to include in the lawsuit. An independent contractor may be acting as a delivery service for a company, but may not be an actual employee. If that's the case, then the company may not be liable.

Suing multiple defendants may be the best way to get all the damages you deserve for your injuries and losses. It takes an experienced lawyer to help you understand your best course of action if you suspect more than one party is to blame for your serious truck accident.

Truck Versus Pedestrian Accidents

California recognizes the simple fact that heavy trucks are much more dangerous to pedestrians than pedestrians are to trucks. For that reason, pedestrians are given more legal leeway in a collision, even when they may be partially at fault. Does this mean that the pedestrian will always have the upper hand, legally, in a truck vs. pedestrian accident? No, it doesn't.

The presence or absence of a crosswalk does not always determine whether the driver was at fault. If the light is green on the walker's side, he or she does not have to be in a crosswalk. But other factors can come into play, including whether the collision happened at an intersection. If the truck had entered the intersection lawfully and the pedestrian chose that moment to walk into the intersection, the pedestrian may be in violation of California law.

Passenger Rights

People riding in a commercial or passenger vehicle at the time of a crash can be severely injured. Passengers have the same right to be reimbursed for medical expenses, lost wages and property damage as drivers do. If your insurance company is giving you pushback or you're having trouble getting an accident report or insurance information from the other parties, you may need to consult an attorney.

Pets In Vehicles

What happens if a pet creates a distraction that causes an accident? While a dog, even a cat, can be a great traveling companion, especially for long trips, they can be distracting.

California officials advise drivers that animals can be a distraction if they are not restrained inside the vehicle. However, there are no specific laws against leaving them loose inside the car while driving. Nor it is illegal to have a pet off leash or out of a cage when getting it into or out of the vehicle. Like other types of distracted driving issues, a pet can be a contributing factor to an accident.

Accident Consequences For At-Fault Truck Drivers

Truck drivers and others with CDLs are held to a higher standard than those driving personal vehicles. If you are involved in an accident as a truck driver, you won't necessarily lose your job or your license. However, there are certain consequences you should know about:

  • You may be subjected to alcohol and drug testing per company policies. If either is detected, you can lose your job regardless of whose fault the accident was.
  • A ticket, no matter how minor, will add points to your license, bringing you a little closer to loss of your CDL if you have others on your record.
  • If you share some of the blame for an accident, you are more likely to lose your license than are other drivers involved in the collision.
  • Some trucking companies, in an effort to maintain appearances, terminate drivers who are involved in accidents as a matter of course.

Big Rig Fatalities And Their Effect On California Law

Almost 10 percent of fatal vehicle accidents on California highways involve large trucks, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute. This isn't surprising, given that a big rig needs up to 40 percent more time to stop and has a lot of "no zone" (or blind spots) to the rear and sides. In addition, even the best truck drivers are at the mercy of other drivers and those responsible for loading their cargo and inspecting such crucial elements as lights, horn and brakes.

Most fatal accidents involving tractor-trailers and other big rigs in California result from the same few factors. These include driver fatigue, driving under the influence, speeding and other reckless moves, stopping at railroad crossings, parking on the shoulder, and making improper turns.

The greater risk that large trucks pose to the public has influenced California state law. The state has more regulations in place than national law when it comes to such issues as how many breaks a truck driver must take while on duty. However, there's currently tension between national lawmakers, who want to relax these standards in the interests of greater corporate flexibility, and California leaders, who don't want the national regulations to override their safety-oriented laws.

All this debate adds up to complex legal matters when an accident does occur. Along with the multiple defendants common when big rigs are involved, the question of whether the truck driver was following the prevailing regulations can be somewhat murky.

Complex Cases Require Skilled Attorneys

If you or a loved one is seeking to recover compensation following an accident, it's important to contact an experienced attorney so you may learn about your options. Accidents involving commercial vehicles can be especially complex considering all the possible parties that may be held responsible. In California, statutes of limitation exist that limit how much time you have to file a personal injury or property damage claim.

Contact an attorney at Girardi | Keese by calling 800-401-4530 or by sending us an email. Your initial consultation is completely free, and all personal injury claims are handled on a contingency basis. This means you pay no attorney fees unless we win your case.