This is the next of a series of columns on how the law can impact your life. Each month we will focus on various aspects of the law relating to personal injuries, those that happen both on-the-job and otherwise, including mishaps which occur in driving vehicles, using products and receiving medical care. The column will also respond to legal questions relating to personal injury that are sent to us.
Healy Scanlon Law Firm is comprised of eight trial attorneys, two of whom are from Ireland. We are located downtown at 111 West Washington Street, Suite 1425, Chicago, Illinois 60602 (call 800-787-5431 or 312-324-0409). www.HealyLawFirm.com. The firm concentrates in the representation of injured victims of all types of accidents.
Readers are encouraged to call or write with questions concerning personal injury law.
RESPONSIBILITY IS THE UNDERPINNING OF OUR CIVIL JUSTICE SYSTEM
The issue of responsibility was key to a verdict last month in a trucking case in Will County. The case involved a fully loaded semi tractor trailer which can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. The typical passenger car weighs only around 3,000 pounds. Given the disparity, it is easy to see why any collision between a commercial truck and a passenger car is likely to result in life-threatening or fatal injuries.
NATIONAL STATISTICS AND RESPONSIBILITY
Statistics complied by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration bear this out. According to NHTSA, one out of every nine traffic fatalities that occurred in 2007 resulted from a collision involving a large truck. Over 400,000 trucks were involved in traffic accidents in 2007--4,808 people were killed as a result. Simply put, it is far more likely that a serious injury or death will result when a collision involves a large truck.
It is for this reason that everyone involved in putting these 18-wheelers on our roadways must do their job responsibly and safely. It is equally as important that when an individual or company does not do their job safely, and an injury or death results, that individual or company can be held responsible.
THE COMPLEXITY OF INTERSTATE TRUCKING
Very often, there are a number of individuals and companies involved in putting just a single truck out on the road-the truck driver, the truck driver's company (called a motor carrier), a shipper, a receiver, and sometimes another company performs what is known as freight brokerage. As you can see, a lot goes into getting a truck on the road.
Sometimes, a company or individual will own goods that need to be transported from one location to another. Instead of contacting a trucking company, or motor carrier directly, that company or individual will enlist the help of the freight broker to find a truck to haul their goods. It is the freight broker's job to find a trucking company with a driver willing to take the load where it needs to go. The freight broker will contact the motor carrier with information about the load. The motor carrier, then, will dispatch their driver to the pickup location, instruct the driver on the delivery point, inform the driver of any special instructions with the load, and supervise the driver along the way.
Freight brokers play an important role because the great majority of motor carrier companies are small and employ very few drivers. Nearly 80% of these companies own less than five trucks. The freight broker helps find business for these small motor carriers, while at the same time finding cheap rates to haul their customer's product.
When an accident occurs involving one of these trucks, inquiry usually starts and ends with the driver and the driver's direct employer, the motor carrier-typically a small company. The problem with that, however, is many times, these small trucking companies have inadequate insurance coverage compared to the magnitude of damage caused when a truck hits a passenger car. Very often, multiple vehicles are involved and serious or fatal injuries result. Sometimes, the insurance coverage for a large truck can be as little as $750,000 to cover the entire accident. As a result, injured parties are often left without adequate compensation in an industry that generates over $250 billion annually.
Another problem is that the companies who are most responsible for the accident are often let off the hook and allowed to dodge responsibility for a truck they helped put out on the road. It seems that many times, freight brokers are willing to accept profits from the transaction when a delivery is made safely, but unwilling to accept any blame when something goes wrong.
This nearly occurred in the case that recently went to trial in Will County. The accident occurred on I-55 in Plainfield. Traffic was slow or stopped on the highway when a truck driver hauling a load of potatoes from Idaho to Bolingbrook slammed into the rear of several vehicles at highway speed. Eyewitnesses indicated that the driver did not apply her brakes prior to impact.
As a result of the accident, two men were killed and another man was severely injured. The lives of three families were changed forever. The driver was working for one of these small motor carrier companies, out of Utah. The company owned one truck and employed one driver and had only $1 million in insurance coverage to be spread among the three plaintiffs. It appeared as though the three families left devastated by this accident would not be adequately compensated.
However, continued investigation revealed that the driver and the motor carrier were not the only parties responsible for the truck being out on the road that day. We learned that a major freight broker, C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. (CHR), also helped to orchestrate this transaction.
The plaintiffs filed suit and began requesting documents from CHR. Throughout the case, CHR claimed that it did nothing more than act as a "matchmaker," introducing its customer with goods to be shipped to the motor carrier. However, the documents produced in the case showed that CHR's involvement went far beyond mere introductions. CHR spoke directly with the truck driver, and not the motor carrier, when it arranged for the driver to take this load of potatoes. CHR told the driver when to pick up the goods, where to pick up the goods, where to take them, and when they had to be there by. CHR required that the driver make periodic check calls directly to them so that they could stay updated on the location of the product. CHR also imposed a system where it could fine drivers for poor performance and late delivery. Was there enough control over the driver so that the driver became an agent of CHR?
WHY DO THESE ACCIDENTS OCCUR?
The answer in part, comes from statistics of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. The statistics show that truck driver fatigue is responsible for 20-40% of all truck crashes.
Sleep deprivation can impair anyone's ability to perform normal, everyday tasks. One can only imagine how inadequate sleep can affect the ability to navigate crowded highways in an 80,000 pound vehicle at 55 to 70 miles per hour. Often a truck driver's fatigue is caused by inadequate daily sleep, rather than a complete absence of sleep. Truck drivers can become fatigued from excessive daily and weekly work hours.
In our case, the driver stated that she would not have been able to deliver the load on time if she had complied with the regulations about time off.
JURY IMPOSES RESPONSIBILITY ON DEFENDANT
After a three-week trial, the jury found that the driver was an agent and thus found CHR liable for the injuries and deaths caused in the accident. They awarded a total of over $23 million. Martin Healy, Jr. and Jack Cannon of Healy Scanlon Law Firm represented the family of one of the men killed in the collision. John L. Cantlin and Timothy Cantlin of Ottawa represented the family of another man who was killed in the crash. Joseph P. Shannon of Woodridge represented a man who sustained severe injuries, but survived the collision. According to local officials, it is the largest injury verdict ever in Will County.
By: Martin Healy, Jr.