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Breaking it down: Who is to blame when a commercial truck malfunctions and causes an accident?

Written by Steve Gursten Posted February 28th, 2013

Trucking companies and truck drivers both have a duty to inspect and safely maintain commercial vehicles to prevent malfunctions

truck malfunction

Recently, a tractor hauling an empty logging trailer lost control, striking an electrical pole and causing  power outages to residents and a nearby school in Appleton, Maine. The truck driver was descending down a hill when he lost control of the commercial vehicle and the 48-foot log bed swung wildly to the right, hitting the pole.

Although the power outage caused inconvenience, thankfully no one was injured.

The truck driver maintained that this crash occurred because the steering on his commercial vehicle malfunctioned.  Despite losing control of the truck,  the driver was able to bring the vehicle to a full stop before any more damage could be done.  This truck accident was not the result of driver error.

Or was it?

Who is responsible for this  crash?

The answer is that both bear responsibility. Transport companies – and all commercial vehicles – are required to follow  mandatory safety rules. Among those duties is the duty to inspect, maintain and repair their fleet of commercial vehicles so large trucks are not suddenly losing control and killing and injuring people on public roadways.  These rules are set out by the  Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Regulation 396.  These rules have been largely adopted in their entirety by most states.

These federal safety regulations outline the inspection and maintenance duties which both the company and the truck driver are required to meet and fulfill.  There is a duty to inspect every single commercial vehicle found in § 396.17. For  example, § 396.3 requires the motor carrier itself not only to inspect these vehicles, but to repair and maintain them.  The regulation even provides a list of the critical parts which must be inspected and maintained.  One of the critical parts that must be maintained is the steering system (§ 393.209).

But it goes even farther.  It is not enough to just “inspect.”  The regulation even specifies who is qualified to inspect the fleet.  A qualified inspector is required to examine the vehicles at least once within any 12-month period.  Documentation is required as well to track the inspections and ensure compliance.

Truck drivers are not  off the hook, either.  Truckers are required under the regulation to inspect, and in some instances service, certain critical parts daily.  These include:

  • Brakes (including trailer brake connections and parking brake);
  • Steering mechanism;
  • Lights and reflectors;
  • Tires, wheels, and rims;
  • Windshield wipers;
  • Mirrors;
  • Coupling devices; and
  • Emergency equipment.

So, getting back to the question: whose fault is this crash?  It’s a tough question for any lawyer to answer without more knowledge of the specific facts. But, what we do know from handling and litigating literally dozens of defective steering cases and bad brake cases, is that if the mandatory safety rules issued by the FMCSA are observed by both the trucking company and the truck driver, these types of truck accidents caused by equipment malfunctions are almost always entirely preventable.  In this case, both the company and the driver had a duty to inspect the truck (and steering mechanism).

Related information:

Who is liable in truck accidents?

FMCSA inspection, repair and maintenance rules

Steven Gursten Photo

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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