A defense lawyer who regularly defends truck accident cases was telling me recently how many plaintiffs’ lawyers rarely ask the questions that really scare him in deposition or in discovery. Car accident lawyers figure, “Hey, it is a truck accident. A truck accident is just a big car, right? It is really not. There are too many nuances to truck accident cases.
One typical miss: inquiry on how much the truck weighed. Some estimate that 30 percent of tractor-trailers and dump trucks are overweight. I’m guessing that is high. Sometimes, advocates for plaintiffs get a little carried away, and the result is hyperbole.
But truck accident cases disproportionately involve overweight trucks not only because heavy trucks cause more accidents because they are less safe, but also because truck drivers and companies willing to go overweight are similarly willing to take other chances with fatigued drivers and improperly maintained trucks.
Each tractor-trailer is designed to carry a certain amount of weight. This is called the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). You look at various parts of the truck and calculate what the truck can safely carry. I don’t fully understand the details but you look at things like the suspension, axles, breaks power train, and such and figure out just what it can hold. Most eighteen-wheel trucks can carry up to 80,000 pounds, which is probably too much as it is. These regulators have long bent in favor of the trucking companies. President Trump, President Obama, President Bush, Governor O’Malley, Governor Hogan… it does not seem to matter.
When you go beyond 80,000 pounds, it becomes even more difficult to break and turn. The usual suspects include trucks carrying lumbar, coal, and oil. But there are so much industry these days an overweight truck can carry just about anything. The problem of overweight trucks is getting worse, not better. In 2015, more than ever, trucking companies have tight margins. This tough economy really squeezes transportation companies generally – take a look at the Dow Transportation Index which is struggling in 2015 even with oil prices down.
One tight margin buster that can help you squeeze out a few extra bucks? Overloading the trucks so you can carry more cargo. Enforcement is down because the states don’t have the resources to police trucks. So you have a recipe for disaster. (Besides overweight truck accident victims, the other big losers are infrastructure – overweight trucks cause the same damage as 10,000 cars on our roads and bridges – and honest trucking companies who find it harder to compete with companies that push the envelope on cargo.)
I’m not sure exactly how to solve the problem. But, from a litigation perspective, Plaintiffs’ truck accident lawyers that suspect cargo weight might have been a cause of the accident, need to find out:
(1) the weight of the cargo,
(2) the type of cargo,
(3) the distribution of the weight in the trailer, and
(4) whether the amount and the distribution of the load are consistent with the rules set forth in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
One thing to keep in mind: there are over half a million overweight permits issued every year. (That is an incredible number, right?) So overweight does not mean federal regulations are being violated. But it usually does.