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A truckers’ ‘special skill and knowledge’ is a factor in assessing duty of ‘ordinary care’

Written by Steve Gursten Posted August 25th, 2016

Some judges mistakenly say truckers should be judged by the same negligence standards as motorists, and do not understand how a truck driver is more like an airplane pilot than a motorist

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Driving a large, commercial, tractor-trailer truck is nothing like driving a passenger car.

Just ask the truckers. They’ll tell you.

These big trucks are so difficult to safely drive, in fact, that truck drivers require a special license, and are required to get special training to drive a truck that people who drive passenger cars are not required to have. They have to meet certain minimum physical requirements that ordinary drivers are not required to meet because trucks are more dangerous. They have to have special training on how to maneuver and stop a truck, because trucks can operate so differently from cars. But talk to any experienced truck accident attorney and you will hear stories about defense lawyers filing motions about standard of care and judges mistakenly granting these motions on what is reasonable ordinary care for a truck driver – as if they were just ordinary drivers of passenger cars.

But of course they aren’t. And understanding this difference, especially if you are an attorney and you are litigating a case involving serious injury or death caused by a tragic truck accident – for you better be prepared for this defense motion on standard of care for truck drivers as soon as you start trial.

The reality is that reasonable care for someone driving a truck is very different than it is for someone driving a car.

Defense Motions on Negligence Standards in Truck Accident Cases

Sadly, there are some judges that fall for this defense argument, when the trucking company’s lawyer falsely and illogically proposes that a trucker is no different than a regular motorist in that they’re both essentially “drivers of vehicles” and, thus, they’re both held to the same standard of “ordinary care.”

This is absurd. Fortunately, many states, courts and judges don’t buy it.

Truckers’ ‘special knowledge and skill’

Truckers have a greater duty and responsibility to be safe because the results of their failure to do so can be dramatically more tragic and deadly than if a regular motorist neglects to drive as carefully as he or she should.

A perfect example of how – and why – the standard of “ordinary care” for truckers is different than for regular motorists is found in the 2015 ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Dakter v. Cavallino.

In Dakter, the trucking company’s defense lawyers and the lawyers for Michigan Millers Mutual Insurance Company (who insured the trucking company) argued that, when assessing whether “truck driver negligence” caused the truck accident, the jury shouldn’t be allowed to consider the following:

“special knowledge and skill as a semi-trailer truck driver …”

The trucker driver negligence instruction in Dakter provided:

“At the time of the accident, the defendant … was a professional truck driver operating a semi tractor-trailer pursuant to a commercial driver’s license issued by the State of Wisconsin. As the operator of a semi tractor-trailer, it was [the defendant’s] duty to use the degree of care, skill, and judgment which a reasonable semi-truck driver would exercise in the same or similar circumstances having due regard for the state of learning, education, experience, and knowledge possessed by semi-truck drivers holding commercial driver’s licenses. A semi-truck driver who fails to conform to the standard is negligent. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove that [the defendant] was negligent.

Truckers’ duty to exercise ‘ordinary’ care is what a reasonable truck driver would exercise in same circumstances

In rejecting the defense argument that the standard for negligence is the same for truckers as it is for ordinary drivers of passenger motor vehicles, the Wisconsin Supreme Court made the following important points:

  • “Under the superior knowledge rule, a person with special knowledge or skill is required to exercise the care a reasonable person with such special knowledge or skill would exercise under the same or similar circumstances.”
  • “Under the profession or trade principle, a person engaged in a profession or trade is required to exercise the care a reasonable member of the profession or trade would exercise under the same or similar circumstances.”
  • “Regardless of whether the jury applies the superior knowledge rule, the profession or trade principle, both doctrines, or neither doctrine, the standard of care remains that of ordinary care” and, thus, “neither doctrine sets forth a heightened standard of care.”
  • “The skill and knowledge required to drive a semi-trailer truck are not part of the ‘ordinary equipment’ of a reasonable person. Rather, they are the result of acquired learning and experience. … The defendant was required to, and did, undergo specialized testing and obtain a specialized license to demonstrate that he possesses the special knowledge and skill necessary to safely operate a semi-trailer truck. The defendant’s assertion that this special knowledge and skill could not be considered by the jury is not cogent.”
  • “[S]tate statutes and federal regulations [applicable to semi-trailer trucks and semi-trailer truck drivers] demonstrate that the conduct of a semi-trailer truck driver should be assessed by reference to the conduct of a reasonable person with the special competence required of semi-trailer truck drivers—not by reference to the conduct of a reasonable, ordinary driver.”
  • “Clearly, driving a semi-trailer truck constitutes a profession or trade within the context of the profession or trade principle. It was therefore appropriate for the jury to evaluate the defendant’s conduct by reference to the conduct of a reasonable semi-trailer truck driver.”

 

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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