Investigating Truck Crashes

This is an echo of a post I made to:  http://voices.injuryboard.com/tractor-trailer-accidents/investigating-truck-crashes.aspx?googleid=262490

I’d like to thank everyone for their warm welcome to InjuryBoard. This might be even more fun than I thought.

Among the comments I received, one from Michael Phelan asking about investigating truck crashes stood out as the kind of question I absolutely love.

In part: “… truck companies or their insurers typically investigate crashes within hours of the crash. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regs require the companies to retain important evidence, such as the driver logs, for only six months. What advice can you give us concerning investigating the cause of truck crashes?”

The investigation of crashes is an extremely complex art. The discussion that follows is in no way complete, but is only a starting point.

Let’s set up a scenario to use as an example. We’ll assume that it was 1 car vs. a semi truck. The semi is owned by a large national interstate carrier. The truck driver received minor injuries, and the car driver is critical. There are no passengers.

First, don’t assume it was the truck driver’s fault. Before anyone accuses me of being prejudiced against car drivers, let me point out that the DOT’s own statistics show that about 75-80% of car vs. truck collisions are the fault of the car driver. Based on my experience, I suspect that percentage should be even higher. Since Americans love to litigate, and are encouraged by large damage awards, the first thing a wreck participant usually does is call an attorney. Probably a pretty good idea whoever’s fault it turns out to be. Rights need to be protected, and at-fault parties need representation too.

Determining who is at fault for causing a collision is a very tricky business. While car drivers cause more crashes, CDL drivers are held to a higher standard. Evidence can be ambiguous. Witnesses can be contradictory and unreliable. This is why we have so many trials. If it was always simple and obvious, there would be far more out of court settlements.

When looking at crash causation, it’s important to note that there is rarely a single cause. Most collisions are like a series of dominoes. Remove any one of the dominoes, and you have a near miss, instead of a crash. So, what we have to determine, is just who put which domino where.

In order to begin the process, evidence needs to be collected. With our scenario in mind, there are five main categories of evidence to collect. I’ve listed them in order of perishability. The discussion of each type is not intended to be exhaustive, but only an example.

  • Physiological
  • Observational
  • Electronic
  • Physical
  • Paper

Physiological evidence refers to things such as drug and alcohol test results. This is the most perishable type of evidence, since it must be collected within a very short time of a crash in order to be of any use. Some of this is automatic. A DOT reportable crash will (or at least should) automatically trigger a drug and alcohol test for the truck driver. Car drivers may or may not end up getting tested.

Observational evidence refers to police reports, witness statements and testimony. The quality of this type of evidence is highly variable, as I’m sure any of IB’s trial lawyer members can attest. The sooner it can be collected, the better.

Electronic evidence refers to such things as cell phone records, text messages, satellite messages, GPS tracking information, traffic cam video etc. Much of this type of evidence gets automatically erased, unless quick action is taken to save it.

Physical evidence refers to things such as the involved vehicles themselves, their contents, their surroundings, and fixed obstacles they may have contacted. Things such as road signs and pavement markings also fall in this category.

Paper refers to the paper trail left by vehicles and drivers. Particularly for trucks, the paper trail can stretch for miles (literally). Fuel receipts. Toll receipts. Bills of lading. Driver logs. The list goes on and on. Not to be neglected is the paper trail left by car drivers. Did the car driver use his credit card at the local restaurant and paid for six shots of scotch along with dinner?

With all of these categories, the sooner the evidence can be collected, the more useful it’s going to be. Fast action is essential.

Once all of this evidence has been collected, then the fun really begins — putting it all together like a jigsaw puzzle to make the best picture that you can. Almost invariably, there will be pieces missing. If the evidence was collected thoroughly and in a timely fashion, most of the missing pieces should be (at least relatively) unimportant.

With a reasonably clear picture of events, a settlement is much more likely without extensive litigation. Where no such clarity exists, well, that’s why they invented trials.

I hope this answers your question, Michael.

Comments and questions are welcome.

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