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Who is Liable in a Trucking Accident?

Video Transcript:

Chris Gilreath:

When truck drivers are on the highways, that they're protected, the cargo gets where it's going to get to, and it's happening safely so everyone on the road is protected.

Rob Rosenthal:

If you're injured in a crash with a big rig, is it always the truck driver's fault? Well, that's what we hope to find out right now, because that's what we're going to ask the lawyer.

Hi again, everybody. I'm Rob Rosenthal with askthelawyers.com, and my guest is attorney Chris Gilreath from Tennessee, who is going to help us sort all of this out. I want to remind you before we talk to Chris, if you want to ask questions about your specific situation, you can just head over to askthelawyers.com, click the button at the top of the page that says, “Ask a Lawyer”, and it'll take you right through the process there. 

Chris, good to see you. Thank you for helping us out and answering our questions.

Chris Gilreath:

Absolutely, Rob. Great to see you today.

Rob Rosenthal:

So these days more than ever, but truck drivers have always been essential workers in our country and they do a very essential kind of work. But when there are accidents, collisions, and injuries, is it always the truck driver's fault if there's an accident? What's your experience there?

Chris Gilreath:

No, sometimes it's not the truck driver's fault. Crashes come in a lot of shapes and sizes. If you think about it, our interstate system is really kind of a commercial delivery system. We use it every day for taking our kids places, for getting to and from work, going across town, going to visit family. But it's also how groceries get delivered; it's how building materials get delivered. So it's really kind of an essential thoroughfare for everyone. 

Rob Rosenthal:

So tell me about regulation of the trucking industry. Who or what regulates them? How regulated is it? And why does that matter?

Chris Gilreath:

Well, as a general matter, the basic set of rules are set up by the federal government. There is a set of minimum standards that are called federal safety motor carrier standards, and they basically set a minimum level of rule-making for how trucking companies and truck drivers are supposed to operate on highways. The law also makes room for individual states to add on their own additional requirements as long as they meet those minimum standards. So it's a combination of state and federal regulations.

Rob Rosenthal:

Lots of regulations though. I'm guessing it's hard to sort through all that sometimes.

Chris Gilreath:

It can be. The idea is it's designed to make sure that the trucks themselves are safely maintained and that truck drivers are trained. Those vehicles are large and they carry a lot of weight, and so they want to make sure that when truck drivers are on the highways that they're protected, the cargo gets where it's going to get to, and it's happening safely so everyone on the road is protected.

Rob Rosenthal:

Those rules also cover time behind the wheel and miles they could cover and how much rest drivers have to take. Why is that important?

Chris Gilrath:

Yes. Over a period of years the rules have changed a little bit, but there are basically two or three rules that commercial trucking companies and drivers have to follow. One is, there's what they call the 14-hour rule, which basically says that a driver can only drive a maximum of 14 hours in any one day, which is measured as a 24-hour period. Then, as you can imagine, there's also a weekly maximum of 60 hours of driving a week if you're working on a seven-day calendar period. There's also what they call the 70-hour rule, which means that if for some reason your company operates on an eight-day calendar, you can only drive up to 70 hours of active driving in a 8-day period. There’s also rules for taking breaks each day for at least a 30-minute period within every eight hours. Those are important because you can imagine that driving a big vehicle over a period of time, you get tired, and so it's important that drivers are alert on the highway.

Rob Rosenthal:

In your experience, have you found that sometimes trucking companies push the drivers to get right up to those limits or maybe even exceed those limits?

Chris Gilreath:

Oh, absolutely. It does happen. You can imagine if you're running a trucking company, the one thing you want to do is make sure that your goods get from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, and if you're in a particular industry sometimes that's a 24-hour cycle where you want trucks rolling in the middle of the night and during the busiest of days. So how do you schedule all that to make sure that drivers are going to all the different places you have business to deliver goods, and it takes a lot of coordination. So those rules become extra important for when drivers can drive.

Rob Rosenthal:

And how do they track those hours and limits?

Chris Gilreath:

Well, the original setup is drivers are required to keep logs of their activity, the times that they're driving, times that they're on break, times that they're sleeping. It started out as being a paper log, but a lot of those are now done electronically through little devices that are actually in the cabs of the trucks. Then a lot of trucking companies will have these computer-generated systems where all that information for all their drivers is collected, and they use computer programs and software to help track and organize the coordination of the drivers.

Rob Rosenthal:

And if there's a collision, if there's injuries, is that information helpful as far as evidence for someone like yourself and just sometimes that evidence not getting taken care of?

Chris Gilreath:

Well, you can imagine as the real world happens, nothing's perfect. So if you're involved in a serious collision, maybe the equipment in the truck is damaged and the information from that driver is lost. Or sometimes drivers will not always keep up their logs as they’re supposed to each day; life gets complicated, and maybe a driver decides that he or she is going to keep up that log later, and then something happens, a family member calls, and then they've just forgotten to do it. Those things happen. 

So it's definitely important because any time you're dealing with a collision—especially a collision where serious injuries are involved—there are always contributing factors to that. It doesn't necessarily mean anybody intended to do something wrong, but there's always a reason that it happened. So the evidence of the driver's activity, how long they had been driving, how tired they were, how many days they've been driving, all factors into that fatigue level and whether there's any inattention of the drivers.

Rob Rosenthal:

I’d imagine that with evidence being so important and making sure that nothing happens to it, that's where someone like yourself comes in. Tell me how an attorney like yourself, if I'm the injured party, how you help make sure that doesn't disappear. 

Chris Gilreath:

So normally, once we get word that a situation has happened, we will typically send out a letter to the trucking company. We'll get the crash report from our clients or from a first responding agency, and we will reach out to the company and say, “We understand there's been an incident. We're asking that you preserve an entire laundry list of information.” A lot of companies have a lot of different physical and computer-generated systems that hold information; vehicles themselves have computers on them that hold information about what the vehicle itself has been doing. We reach out and we try to ask that that information be preserved as soon as possible.

Rob Rosenthal:

I would imagine getting that letter out, getting that evidence preserved as early as possible is really important.

Chris Gilreath:

It is. Under the rules for trucking companies, companies are only required to keep that information for six months and then they're allowed to legally get rid of it. Now, whether they keep it is up to them, but a lot of companies—either because it's paper storage or just because they just don't want to store that much backlog of information—it's like an old utility bill, they shred it, they get rid of it—and a lot of times in a legal case where there are some serious injuries, that situation lasts a lot longer than six months, and so to keep the trucking company from getting rid of evidence that's important to a case in your situation, that's why we send the letter out to put them on notice that there's a potential claim here, and legally we're asking you to hold that information and preserve it because we want the best evidence of the facts to be available to present a court.

Rob Rosenthal:

Lots of great information, Chris. Thank you so much for answering our questions. I appreciate it. 

Chris Gilreath:

Thank you, Rob. 

Rob Rosenthal:

That's going to do it for this episode of Ask the Lawyer. My guest has been Tennessee attorney Chris Gilreath. 

Remember, if you want to ask questions about your specific situation, head over to askthelawyers.com and click the button at the top of the page that says, “Ask a Lawyer”, and you can do that right there. Thanks for watching. I'm Rob Rosenthal with AskTheLawyers&trade.

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