Negligent Inspection, Maintenance, or Repair
Many truck accidents are attributable to mechanical failures. Federal regulations require motor carriers to conduct systematic inspections and maintenance. 49 C.F.R. § 396.3(a).
A trucking company must maintain a record of all inspections, repairs, and maintenance performed on each truck. 49 C.F.R. § 396.3(b). A motor carrier may be held responsible for any injury caused by its failure to properly inspect, maintain, or repair its trucks. These records must be maintained for at least one year. 49 C.F.R. § 396.3(c). However, if a truck is involved in an accident and the trucking company sells or disposes of the truck, the trucking company is required to keep these records for only six months. 49 C.F.R. § 396.3(c). This is one reason why a plaintiff’s attorney should send out a spoliation letter to the trucking company as soon as possible after being retained. Furthermore, if you determine that the defective truck was recently purchased from another carrier, you should request maintenance, inspection, and repair records from the prior owner. A prior owner can be held liable if its failure to comply with inspection and maintenance regulations was responsible for the unsafe truck. See Bailey v. Lewis Farm, Inc., 171 P.3d 336 (Or. 2007).
All of the inspection, maintenance, and repair requirements are set forth in the FMCSR. A trucking company will be held liable for any violation of these regulations. If your client is involved in a crash with an interstate carrier, evidence concerning violation of these inspection, maintenance, and repair regulations will be evidence of negligence. See Thurston v. Ballou, 23 Mass. App. Ct. 737, 739–40 (1987).Driving in Hazardous Conditions
If your case involves an accident where weather was a factor, it is important to determine if the driver complied with 49 C.F.R. § 392.14. Section 392.14 specifies that
[e]xtreme caution in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle shall be exercised when hazardous conditions, such as those caused by snow, ice, sleet, fog, mist, rain, dust, or smoke, adversely affect visibility or traction. Speed shall be reduced when such conditions exist. If conditions become sufficiently dangerous, the operation of the commercial motor vehicle shall be discontinued and shall not be resumed until the commercial motor vehicle can be safely operated. Whenever compliance with the foregoing provisions of this rule increases hazard to passengers, the commercial motor vehicle may be operated to the nearest point at which the safety of passengers is assured.
This regulation clearly specifies that the operator should reduce speed when driving in rain, sleet, or snow. 49 C.F.R. § 392.14. If the accident report indicates that the driver was operating at the speed limit, it can be argued that driving at the speed limit, under hazardous conditions, is some evidence of negligence. Some courts have held that, if an accident occurs in hazardous weather conditions, the driver is held to a standard of extreme care. See Fisher v. Swift Transp. Co., 181 P.3d 601, 607 (Mont. 2008). Although the federal regulations do not specify the actual speeds to travel in rain, sleet, or snow, the Massachusetts Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Manual states as follows:
Wet roads can double stopping distance. Reduce speed by about one third (e.g. slow from 55 to about 35 mph) on a wet road. On packed snow, reduce speed by a half or more. If the surface is icy, reduce speed to a crawl and stop driving as soon as you can safely do so.
Massachusetts Commercial Driver’s License Manual at 2–25.
Each state has its own CDL manual outlining the proper manner in which to drive a commercial vehicle. These manuals are remarkably similar from state to state. Commercial drivers should be familiar with the requirements contained in the CDL manual.
The CDL manual is a great tool to use at trial. The driver will have to admit familiarity with the manual and cannot deny being required to study the manual in order to obtain a CDL.Accident Investigation
Even if the accident has been investigated by the police or other government agencies, it is important to retain your own accident reconstructionist to investigate the accident, take measurements, and photograph the accident scene and the vehicles. The reconstruction expert can recreate the accident and estimate speeds and paths of the vehicles. In any truck case, you should consider retaining an expert mechanic to determine if any mechanical problems were responsible for the crash. If the truck rear-ended your client’s vehicle, you want the mechanic to carefully inspect the braking system. Other experts routinely retained include experts on compliance with the FMCSR and in the area of driver fatigue and violation of the hours-of-service regulations.
Your experts will review all of the driver’s inspection reports as well as the carrier’s inspection documents. Drivers cannot operate a commercial motor vehicle without inspecting the following parts and satisfying themselves that the parts are in good working order:
- Service brake components that are readily visible to a driver performing as thorough a visual inspection as possible without physically going under the vehicle, and trailer brake connections
- Lighting devices, lamps, markers, and conspicuity marking material
- Wheels, rims, lugs, tires
- Air line connections, hoses, and couplers
- King pin upper coupling device
- Rails or support frame
- Tie down bolsters
- Locking pins, clevises, clamps, or hooks
- Sliders or sliding frame lock.
49 C.F.R. § 392.7.
Drivers must also inspect all emergency equipment and be satisfied that it is working properly. 49 C.F.R. § 392.8. Before operating a vehicle, drivers must be satisfied that the vehicle is in safe operating condition, review the last driver vehicle inspection report, and, if defects were noted and repaired, sign the report. 49 C.F.R. § 396.13.
Every driver must prepare a report at the end of each day concerning the condition of the same parts and accessories examined during the pretrip inspection. 49 C.F.R. § 396.11(a).
The original driver inspection report and the certification of any repairs performed to correct the defects must be retained for three months from the date the report was prepared. 49 C.F.R. § 396.11(c)(2).
If your case involves defective equipment, faulty repairs, and/or an inadequate pretrip inspection, it is important that your spoliation letter be sent out before the expiration of this three-month period and that you refer specifically to any pretrip inspections, posttrip inspections, and the annual inspection report. See 49 C.F.R. § 396.17(c). If your case involves faulty brakes, it is important to note that all brake inspections performed for a trucking company should have been performed by a “qualified specialist” as defined by the regulations. 49 C.F.R. § 396.25.