California Truck Accident Attorneys

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What Factors Contribute to Truck Accidents in California?
Commercial Trucking Laws in California
How Can an Experienced Truck Accident Lawyer Help?
What Types of Damages Can a Truck Accident Victim Receive?
Identifying Proper Defendants

Truck Accident Law in California

Commercial trucks are vital to California’s economy. Big-rigs, tractor-trailers, equipment haulers, semi-trucks, refrigerator trucks, tanker trucks, and other large commercial vehicles transport raw materials, food, gasoline, chemicals, machinery, and finished products in and out of the state. Without the trucking industry and the truckers, California would come to a standstill.

Unfortunately for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and drivers of passenger vehicles, accidents involving large trucks are extremely common and often cause serious or fatal injuries. In 2014 alone, close to 4,000 large trucks and buses were involved in fatal crashes in the United States. In 2015, there were nearly 300 fatal accidents in California involving a large truck. With commercial trucks weighing as much as 80,000 pounds (or 40 tons), these devastating consequences of truck accidents come as no surprise.

If you were seriously injured in a truck accident in California, you should understand why it is so important to work with an experienced tractor trailer accident lawyer. Because semi truck accidents can be highly complex and almost always involve one or more commercial insurance policies, you should never try to negotiate or settle a truck accident injury claim on your own. This post first explains the most common factors that contribute to truck accidents in California. It then gives a general overview of some of the laws that apply to truck drivers in the state. Finally, it discusses how a truck accident victim can secure compensation for his or her injuries and other losses with the assistance of an experienced truck accident lawyer.

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What Factors Contribute to Truck Accidents in California?

When a semi-truck or other large commercial truck is involved in an accident, there may be many contributing factors at play. These are just some of the most common causes of truck accidents in California.

  • Driver Fatigue. Although state and federal laws require drivers to get rest for certain amounts of time during every long shift, unscrupulous trucking companies sometimes put pressure on their drivers to drive even though they are fatigued or exhausted. Driver fatigue leads to poor decision-making and slowed response times, and is a major cause of trucking accidents in California.
  • Excessive Speed. Truck drivers are often required to drive at a lower speed than drivers of passenger vehicles. When truck drivers fail to abide by posted speed limits or drive too fast for road conditions, the consequences can be devastating.
  • Equipment Failure. Modern commercial trucks are highly sophisticated machines with advanced equipment on board. Despite technological advances in the trucking industry, equipment failures are still a major contributing factor in truck crashes.
  • Overloading. State and federal regulations require commercial trucking companies to adhere to specified load sizes. When a truck is carrying too much weight, braking time can be affected and this can lead to devastating accidents.
  • Drug or Alcohol Use. Commercial truck drivers and their employers follow strict alcohol and drug testing rules that are required by federal law. Nevertheless, drug and alcohol abuse among truck drivers remains a major problem and is often a contributing factor in serious truck accidents.
  • Aggressive Driving. Anyone who has driven on California’s highways has probably witnessed aggressive driving. When a commercial truck driver engages in aggressive or reckless driving, the results can be catastrophic.

Almost all of these common causes of trucking accidents are preventable or can be controlled with proper safety measures. If you believe that one of these contributing factors played a role in your truck accident, contact a truck accident lawyer right away to discuss your case.

Commercial Trucking Laws in California

Commercial trucking companies and truck drivers in California must follow both state and federal regulations. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) establishes the federal regulations that apply to the trucking industry in the United States. These regulations address drug and alcohol testing, maximum hours of service, minimum rest times, proper vehicle marking, transportation of hazardous materials, and truck maintenance. At the state level, California regulates certain aspects of truck operations, legal truck size and weight, designated truck routes, maximum truck speeds on state highways, and weight station requirements.

A truck driver’s failure to abide by a safety law can be strong evidence of negligence in a truck accident lawsuit. California recognizes a legal theory called negligence per se, which means that certain types of conduct are automatically considered to be negligent and the plaintiff’s burden to prove his or her case is reduced. In a trucking accident lawsuit, this means that if a truck driver violates a law designed to protect driver safety and the violation was a substantial factor in causing the driver’s injuries, then the driver will win his or her negligence claim unless the truck driver’s violation was necessary or excused.

How Can an Experienced Truck Accident Lawyer Help?

A tractor trailer accident is a life-altering event for which nobody prepares. In an instant, you can suffer devastating injuries that may require an extended hospital stay and long-term care. In addition to your physical injuries, you may be experiencing post-traumatic stress due to the severity of your accident. Combined with the unexpected financial burden of your medical treatment, you may be feeling overwhelmed and unsure of what steps to take next.

A trucking accident lawyer can help you navigate the road to recovery. Immediately after a truck accident, a claims adjuster from the truck driver’s commercial insurance company may contact you. You should never speak to a claims adjuster without consulting with a lawyer. A claims adjuster might come across as friendly, but it’s important to remember that this person’s goal is to settle your claim for as little money as possible. He or she might try to get you to say things that ultimately hurt your claim.

An attorney can help you understand whether filing a personal injury lawsuit after a truck accident is the right course of action for you. Sometimes, it’s not possible to negotiate a fair insurance claim settlement and you need to pursue legal action against the truck driver and his or her trucking company. An experienced truck accident lawyer will be familiar with what it takes to win your case, including gathering the right types of evidence, working with expert witnesses from the commercial trucking industry, and establishing that the truck driver is legally at fault for the accident.

What Types of Damages Can a Truck Accident Victim Receive?

If you are successful in a truck accident lawsuit, you may be entitled to receive compensation for the following types of harms.

  • Costs of Medical Treatment. If the truck driver was totally at fault, you should receive full compensation for the costs of your medical treatment. This includes costs for time spent in a hospital, copayments for visits to your doctor, prescription drug costs, and the cost of any ongoing physical therapy or other care you had to undergo as a result of the accident.
  • Compensation for Pain and Suffering. If your injuries were severe and caused you to experience extreme pain and emotional suffering, you may be entitled to compensation.
  • Lost Wages. If you had to take time away from your job to recover from the injuries you sustained in the accident, you may receive an amount equal to what you would have earned during that time. Some truck accident victims are permanently disabled or have a reduced capacity to work in the future. In this case, you may be entitled to money damages for lost future earnings.
  • Damage to Property. If your vehicle or other property was damaged in the accident, you may receive compensation for the fair market value of your property at the time of the truck accident.

IDENTIFYING PROPER DEFENDANTS IN CALIFORNIA TRUCK ACCIDENT CASES

Truck-Accident

Ascertaining the identity of potentially responsible defendants in a commercial trucking accident case can be challenging. Particularly in cases where the truck involved in the accident might be underinsured in light of the injuries and damages that occurred to Plaintiffs, identifying all responsible defendants is of the utmost importance.

In the trucking industry, independent contractors often assist both licensed haulers and customers in delivering loads to their destination. These relationships may be regular, and recur daily; or they may be sporadic and occasional. Whether others involved in the hauling transaction (besides the negligent driver and his employer) may be viable defendants in a Plaintiff’s personal injury action generally depends on the licenses held by, and the particular business relationship between, the various entities.

Assume, first, a scenario where the negligent driver, or his employer (a “sub-hauler”), entered into an agreement with another carrier (the “hauler”) to transport the hauler’s customer’s goods. A requisite “first step” to the legal inquiry of potential liability is to ascertain whether the hauler was duly permitted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. See, 49 C.F.R. § 390.3. If so, the sub-hauler and its driver may be deemed the hauler’s employee as a matter of law. Federal law governing the hauler defines “employee” inclusively: “Such term includes a driver of a commercial motor vehicle (including an independent contractor while in the course of operating a commercial motor vehicle)….” 49 C.F.R. § 390.5, emphasis added.

If, however, the vehicle involved in the accident was not federally permitted, but was permitted in intrastate commerce, the more arcane provisions of the California “Motor Carriers of Property Permit Act” (Veh. Code §§ 3400 et seq., hereafter, the Act), along with the law of agency, will likely determine legal liability.

The consequences of the Act’s application are best understood by considering three hypothetical scenarios: (1) the negligent driver was hauling a load pursuant to a contractual agreement with a “for-hire motor carrier of property,” as defined by Veh. Code, § 34601(b); (2) the negligent driver was hauling a load pursuant to a contractual agreement with a “private carrier,” as defined by Veh. Code, § 34601(d); and (3) the negligent driver was hauling a load pursuant to a contractual agreement with a non-transportation business entity (e.g., a manufacturer of furniture, coffee, or industrial goods).

(1) A “for-hire motor carrier of property is vicariously liable for the acts of an independent contractor:

Veh. Code, § 34601(b) defines a “for-hire motor carrier of property” as a carrier who “transports property for compensation.” Identification of, and insurance information concerning, such entities is a matter of public record which can be found at the DMV website.

In this hypothetical, assume that, due to other pressing business, XYZ Company, a permitted “for-hire motor carrier” under the Act, retained ABC Haulers (and thereby their assigned driver) as a subhauler, in order to haul XYZ’s customer’s goods. Serna v. Pettey Leach Trucking, Inc. (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 1475, 1486 is among recent cases to state that XYZ is vicariously liable for the negligent acts of ABC in that instance: “Hence, the rule is that a carrier who undertakes an activity (1) which can be lawfully carried on only under a public franchise or authority and (2) which involves possible danger to the public is liable to a third person for harm caused by the negligence of the carrier’s independent contractor. [Citations omitted.] Were the rule otherwise, a carrier could escape liability for the negligence of its independent contractors, thus reducing the incentive for careful supervision and depriving those who are injured of the financial responsibility of those to whom the privilege was granted. For these reasons, the carrier’s duties are nondelegable, and it is only when the carrier is “not regulated” at all that the rule is otherwise.”

(2) Absent an agency relationship, a “private carrier,” as defined by Veh. Code, § 34601(d), is NOT vicariously liable for the acts of its subhauler:

Next, assume that XYZ was retained by FGH Chemical to haul FGH’s own manufactured goods to market. Assume also that FGH is permitted as a “private carrier” under the Act. In that case, FGH is not liable for the acts of XYZ’s employee. That was the holding in Hill Brothers Chemical Company v. Superior Court (2004) 123 Cal.App.4th 1001. There, Hill Brothers was permitted under the Act as a private carrier, as defined by Veh. Code, § 34601(d), that is it was: “…a motor carrier of property, who transports only his or her own property, including, but not limited to, the delivery of goods sold by that carrier.” The court held that Hill Brothers was not vicariously liable for the negligent acts of the driver of the carrier that it had hired to deliver its goods. Finding that Hill was simply a user of the transportation services of a for-hire motor carrier, the court held there was no basis for finding liability under a non-delegable duty theory.

(3) Absent an agency relationship, a contracting entity which is not licensed at all is not vicariously liable for the acts of an independent contractor.

Finally, assume that XYZ was hauling goods for TOP Coffee, an entity possessing no DMV “carrier” license under the Act at all. Where goods are being hauled pursuant to contract with such an entity (i.e., a mere customer), the following rule would generally apply: “As a general rule, a hirer of an independent contractor is not liable for physical harm caused to others by the act or omission of the independent contractor.” J.L. v. Children’s Institute, Inc. (2009) 177 Cal.App.4th 388, 400. Put another way, the rationale for non-liability set forth in Hill Brothers would be even more applicable here, as to an entity which is not even in the business of transportation in the first place: there is no public policy basis for finding a non-delegable duty.

However, an exception to the rule of non-liability in scenarios (2) and (3) might exist. Plaintiff (or a co-defendant) might argue that the relationship between the negligent driver defendant (or his employer) and the contracting entity (either a “private carrier” or a customer) was such as to create an agency relationship, rendering that entity liable for the acts of the negligent driver, as its agent. See, Civil Code Section 2338: “a principal is responsible to third persons for the negligence of his agent in the … business of the agency….”

That is, Plaintiff can demonstrate that either the customer or “private carrier” had a “right to control” the conduct of the negligent driver and his employer: “Agency and independent contractorship are not necessarily mutually exclusive legal categories as independent contractor and servant or employee are. In other words, an agent may also be an independent contractor. (Citation omitted.) One who contracts to act on behalf of another and subject to the other’s control, except with respect to his physical conduct, is both an agent and an independent contractor. (Citation omitted.)” City of Los Angeles v. Meyers Bros. Parking System, Inc. (1975) 54 Cal.App.3d 135, 138, emphasis in original.

For example, perhaps discovery will demonstrate that TOP Coffee exercised exacting day to day supervision over the details of the work of the driver involved in the accident, so as to demonstrate a “right to control:” e.g., when he worked, where he went, what procedures he had to follow, etc. In such an instance, TOP Coffee might be found, at trial, to be a principle vicariously liable for the acts of the negligent driver as its agent. “The existence of an agency is a factual question within the province of the trier of fact….” L. Byron Culver & Assoc. v. Jaoudi Industrial & Trading Corp. (1991) 1 Cal.App.4th 30; see also, CACI 3701 (“Tort Liability Asserted Against Principal—Essential Factual Elements”). It is important to consider this potential means of proving vicarious liability, given an appropriate fact situation, in addition to the possibility of proving non-delegable duty.

The concepts presented here offer initial guidance in what can be a long and challenging process: proving vicarious liability for the negligent acts of a non-employee. The result of that process will often substantially impact the Plaintiff’s ultimate recovery for damages.

An experienced personal injury attorney who handles trucking accident cases can help you better understand how much your case may be worth and what types of damages you should expect to receive.

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With so many vehicles on the road, it’s no wonder why there are so many truck accidents yearly. These companies have previously been labeled as companies with the worst drivers.

DHL
FedEx
UPS
US Xpress Trucks