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pinball different pathWhat do you do when insurance coverage is grossly inadequate for a catastrophic truck crash personal injury or wrongful death case?

Big truck wrecks can cause a lot of carnage. When a small passenger car is run over at highway speed by a 80,000 pound tractor trailer bigger than a Sherman tank, a tremendous amount of kinetic energy is unleashed. The results are often than catastrophic.

Unfortunately, the liability insurance required for big trucks has not been adjusted since President Reagan’s administration. Minimum insurance for general freight tractor trailers in interstate commerce was set at $750,000 in 1981. Minimum coverage for interstate hazmat trucks and passenger buses was set at $5,000,000 in 1985.

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Intermodal Trucking
Most people who see a tractor trailer crash have no idea of the significance when the trailer is a skeleton chassis with a freight container bolted to it. State troopers don’t know. Motor carrier enforcement officers don’t know. Accident reconstruction experts don’t know. About 99.99% of lawyers who handle tractor trailer crash cases don’t understand it. They have never been trained on it and have not had occasion to research and study it in depth.

We have had good success with these cases, but I’m not going to publish a how-to manual for lawyers on the internet. If I did, one of my brethren would take the germ of an idea without deep study and mess it up.

But here are a few key points:

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NOTE TO TRUCK DRIVERS:

Our law practice focuses on representation of people who are seriously injured, and families of those killed, in crashes with large commercial vehicles. While those are often truck drivers, we do not handle truckers’ employment law matters. For legal advice on issues with your employer or truck driving schools, see Truckers Justice Center. 

One day in Kansas City, I took the deposition testimony through an interpreter of a Bosnian immigrant truck driver. He was driving with a Florida Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) when he crashed an 18-wheeler into my client on a Georgia interstate highway.

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Every year we see many reports of tractor trailers overturning in metro Atlanta and across Georgia. Usually it is just another half-comical story of traffic tie-ups because some truck rolled over in a freeway interchange, spilling a load of watermelons, beer, Christmas packages, or whatever.

But too often tractor trailer rollovers result in serious injury or death to the truck driver and sometimes others. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has worked for years to reduce the incidence of truck rollovers, which are a major safety concern for both truck drivers and other motorists on the highway.

The Large Truck Crash Causation Study documented over a decade ago that tractor-trailers are particularly vulnerable because of the trailer’s high center of gravity and frequently unstable loads. In that study, the great majority were driver errors, including excessive speed in curves, often misjudging sharpness, drifting off road, often counter-steering abruptly, not adjusting to the trailers high center of gravity, being impaired physically (e.g. fatigue, drowsiness) or emotionally (reckless, angry). Vehicle-related problems include top heavy and badly distributed or unsecured loads, poorly maintained brakes or suspension and under-inflated tires, many of which were the driver’s responsibility to check. Improved driver training, especially for tanker truck and concrete mixer truck drivers, is a big part of rollover prevention.

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Ten deaths of innocents on I-16 in the past six weeks have prompted a protest by truck drivers at the Port of Savannah against unsafe practices of trucking companies. In a news conference Monday, these truckers said that long hours on the road are to blame from this rash to multiple fatalities

At a Tuesday morning news conference, truck drivers said long hours on the road are the cause of these fatal crashes. These Savannah area truckers are calling for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to enforce hours of service and fatigue regulations that require trucking companies to limit the number of hours they can require drivers to work.

Consistent with what other truck drivers have either admitted under cross examination or confided to me of coffee at truck stops many times over the years, driver Carol Cauley said trucking companies often pressure them to work when they are too fatigued to drive safely. That, combined with low wages, keeps them from being able to afford food or rest breaks. “I actually have friends I know that have told me that they’ve fallen asleep on the road, and I’m like please slow down and they’re like well, I have to take care of my family.” She said that after truck maintenance costs and fuel, truck drivers often make below minimum wage.

Federal safety rules, which are too often evaded, address driver fatigue:

A federal safety rule on fatigue states that, “No driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness, or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle.”

A related rule on hours of service requires: (1) a trucker can drive only 11 hours within a 14 hour period before going off duty for 10 hours; (2) 34 hour restart must include two 1am to 5am periods and can only be used once in 7 days, and (3) 30 minute break period after 8 hours.

The primary focus of these rules is safety of travelers on the roads, as illustrated by the rash of multiple fatality crashes on south Georgia. But there is also a bad effect truck drivers’ health. The average life expectancy of a truck driver is 61, or 16 years less than the U.S. average, according to Centers for Disease Control data. Trucking is the eighth-most dangerous job in terms of deaths per worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We are currently involved in several truck crash wrongful death cases representing survivors of four people killed when rear-ended by tired or distracted drivers of intermodal freight tractor trailers on interstate highways on the Georgia coast. That includes two killed on I-95 at Brunswick in December 2013, plus two killed on I-16 near Savannah last month.
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One of the leading causes of tragic tractor trailer crashes is the influence of drugs – even perfectly legal prescription or over-the-counter medications — on drivers’ motor skills, balance, coordination, perception, attention, reaction time, and judgment. Even small quantities of some legal drugs can have a crucial impact on driving ability.

In 2009, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reported results of a study finding that 18% of fatally injured drivers tested positive for at least one illicit, prescription, or over-the-counter drug. Perhaps more significantly, drugs 7 times as likely as alcohol to be present in weekend nighttime drivers — 16% testing positive for drugs compared with only 2% above the legal limit for alcohol. In our practice, we have also seen the catastrophic impact of drivers who combined some alcohol with a mix of various legal and illegal mind-altering drugs.

When you combine the witch’s brew of drugs and alcohol with the huge kinetic force of an 80,000 pound tractor trailer, the danger is exponentially greater than when a similarly intoxicated person is driving a small passenger car.

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One of the leading causes of tragic tractor trailer crashes is the influence drugs – even perfectly legal prescription or over-the-counter medications — on drivers’ motor skills, balance, coordination, perception, attention, reaction time, and judgment. Even small quantities of some legal drugs can have a crucial impact on driving ability.

In 2009, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reported results of a study finding that 18% of fatally injured drivers tested positive for at least one illicit, prescription, or over-the-counter drug. Perhaps more significantly, drugs 7 times as likely as alcohol to be present in weekend nighttime drivers — 16% testing positive for drugs compared with only 2% above the legal limit for alcohol. In our practice, we have also seen the catastrophic impact of drivers who combined some alcohol with a mix of various legal and illegal mind-altering drugs.
When you combine the witch’s brew of drugs and alcohol with the huge kinetic force of an 80,000 pound tractor trailer, the danger is exponentially greater than when a similarly intoxicated person is driving a small passenger car.

On March 25, 2015, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) lowered the boom on a Georgia-based truck driver for drugged driving. Robert Lee Turner was declared “an imminent hazard to public safety” and banned from operating any commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce.

Turner was operating an intermodal tractor trailer when he hit and seriously injured Corporal William Solomon, a Georgia Ports Authority police officer, who was doing routine traffic control duties at the Garden City Terminal. After he tested positive for cocaine, he was arrested and charged with DUI.

“Commercial drivers should have no doubt that we will vigorously enforce all federal safety regulations to the fullest extent possible by law,” said FMCSA Chief Counsel Scott Darling. “FMCSA is committed to raising the bar for commercial vehicle safety, and we will remain vigilant in removing unsafe truck and bus drivers from our roadways.”

Turner was not terribly atypical of truck drivers hired by small trucking companies that are contracted to tow intermodal container chassis trailers from the ports of Savannah and Jacksonville. The larger companies that control the international ocean shipping of intermodal freight containers attempt to hide behind these small, minimally insured companies. When disasters occur in their operation on Georgia highways, most victims and most attorneys don’t know any better than to accept the relatively paltry amount of insurance dangled before them. A significant part of our practice involves navigating the little-known path through federal regulations to reach the more adequate insurance coverage of the intermodal companies.
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Will some truck drivers alter their routes and schedules to avoid safety inspections during a 72-hour period of enhanced truck inspections across North America next week? For years, I have heard from truck drivers stories of how they would take alternate routes to avoid speed limit enforcement and safety inspections. Once, when my daughter was attending a college in a neighboring state, a truck driver told me that she should avoid a certain non-Interstate route because all the truckers who wanted to evade the law took that route.

28th Annual International Roadcheck Begins June 2, 2015
The 28th Annual International Roadcheck will take place between June 2 and June 5, 2015. The Roadcheck is conducted by The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance together with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, Transport Canada, and the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation in Mexico.
Within the 72-hour period, there will be over 10,000 certified commercial truck and bus inspectors on the roads of North America. Some believe that because of heightened scrutiny, many carriers will choose not to operate during the three day period. The goal of the campaign is to average 17 inspections per minute over a 72-hour period.

North American Standard Level I Inspection
According to The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, the North American Standard Level I Inspection will be conducted, which is the most thorough roadside inspection. “It is a 37-step procedure that includes a thorough examination of both the driver and vehicle. Drivers will be asked to provide items such as their license, endorsements, medical card and hours-of-service documentation, and will be checked for seat belt usage and the use of alcohol and/or drugs. The vehicle inspection includes checking items such as the braking system, coupling devices, exhaust system, frame, fuel system, lights, safe loading, steering mechanism, drive line, suspension, tires, van and open-top trailer bodies, wheels and rims, windshield wipers, and emergency exits on buses.”

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An overturning concrete mixer truck injured former Atlanta Mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young on Monday afternoon, May 11th, at the corner of Hemphill Avenue and 14th Street, in the trendy West Midtown area just north of the Georgia Tech campus. Young, the visionary 83-year-old icon of civil rights and Atlanta politics, was taken to a hospital as a precaution.

News photos of the scene make it clear to me what probably happened. In loaded cement mixer trucks the center of gravity is high and constantly shifting. Standard truck driver training materials in the ready-mix concrete industry detail the handling characteristics. Concrete industry training materials describe how a loaded cement mixer truck will tip up on two wheels when making a ninety degree turn on level pavement at 12 miles per hour, and will roll over at 16 miles per hour.

The news photos show a typical pattern of a concrete mixer truck overturning in a right turn at an intersection.

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The families of the Georgia Southern nursing students killed or injured this week when a tractor trailer ran over them on I-16 bear a huge burden of pain and grief. As a parent, I cannot imagine anything worse than the sudden death of a child who has had you wrapped around her finger from the first time you held her in your arms.

The families need time, space, privacy and gracious consideration from others to have space to grieve, each in their own way.

After any such tragedy waves of welcome and unwelcome people descend upon the survivors.

First may come the well-meaning relatives, friends, neighbors and pastors. I can imagine that each family’s home has been deluged with casseroles and that parents’ Sunday School classes have signed up to provide meals for the next month. That loving embrace can help one keep going through the early days.

But then, after the funeral, folks go back to their everyday lives, leaving parents and siblings to sit in the departed child’s bedroom and weep for hours in the dark. Each must process the stages of grief.

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