After a truck accident, attention is often focused on the truck driver and/or the company that employs the driver when determining liability. In some cases, though, neither of those parties had anything to do with causing the accident. Instead, the truck may have malfunctioned and caused the truck driver to crash.
Of course, if a truck malfunction results from inadequate maintenance or inspections, the trucking company may be at fault for failing to maintain its fleet. However, if the malfunction happened because the truck—or a truck part—had an inherent defect, the focus should transfer to the manufacturer that produced and sold that truck part.
Defective Truck Parts
Large semi-trucks and tractor-trailers are composed of thousands of moving parts. Truck engines are built much differently than car engines, as they are intended to haul up to 80,000 pounds and have a longer life than passenger vehicles. Commercial trucks can have up to 18 gears and significantly more horsepower than other vehicles. They have many more than four wheels (hence the common nickname “18-wheeler”) and heavy-duty brake systems. Because of their greater complexity, there are many opportunities for things to go wrong.
Some of the most common defective truck parts that lead to accidents include:
Tires – Commercial truck tires should be durable enough to travel thousands of miles and support the weight of the truck. Any imperfections or weaknesses in a tire can easily lead to a sudden tire blow out. Depending on which tire blows and the traffic conditions at the time, such blowouts can cause drivers to crash into vehicles around them.
Brakes – Many different factors can cause brakes to malfunction, including defective brake lines that lead to leaks, defective master cylinders and brake line connectors, inadequate seals or pressure systems, and more. If a driver is traveling at highway speeds and suddenly loses the ability to slow down or stop the truck, it may be impossible to avoid hitting other cars.
Steering systems – Large tractor-trailers are difficult enough to maneuver even with a working steering system. If a steering system is defective, it can hinder a driver’s ability to stay in a designated lane or to control the truck on curves or turns. Lane drifting and uncontrolled turns can often cause a crash.
Coupling – The coupling connects the tractor to the semi-trailer, keeping the trailer steady while still allowing the truck to navigate turns. When the coupling is defective, a trailer can jackknife, which means it will swing out perpendicular to the tractor—and to the road. A jackknifed trailer can collide with any vehicles in its path, as well as result in loss of control of the truck driver.
The Legal Duty of Manufacturers
Any company that manufactures and sells any type of consumer product has the legal duty to ensure that the product is reasonably safe for its intended use. If the product has inherent risks, the company should provide proper warnings of those risks to consumers. A company can be deemed negligent if it does any of the following:
- Designs a product with an inherent defect
- Assembles a product incorrectly or using inadequate materials
- Fails to provide warnings of possible risks of a product
Vehicle manufacturers – including commercial truck manufacturers – are no different and are held to the same standard as other manufacturing companies. If a truck part is defectively designed or assembled, the manufacturer can be held liable if a later malfunction causes serious injuries.
Commercial Truck Recalls
Often, a manufacturer will receive notice that certain truck parts are malfunctioning, which may indicate that a defect exists on a wider scale. To prevent the risk of further injuries, the company should then issue a recall of the defective truck part. Recalls of motor vehicles are reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA). Owners of any affected trucks should be notified and should have the defective truck part replaced or repaired before the truck is on the road again.
There have been a few vehicle manufacturers who have failed to issue recalls in a timely manner when needed, which can lead to unnecessary accidents and injuries. If a company knew of a potentially dangerous defect and failed to take action, it should definitely be held liable if people are injured as a result.
Proving Liability for a Malfunction
In some cases, proving liability for a truck accident is relatively straightforward. For example, if a truck driver crashes into your car and then stumbles out of the cab and is obviously drunk, the driver will likely be arrested and you can use a criminal conviction as evidence of the driver’s fault. Proving that a manufacturer was responsible for a crash, on the other hand, can be significantly more complicated.
First of all, it will need to be identified that a malfunction was the root of the problem. This may be obvious—such as with a tire blowout—or may be more difficult to identify. If a small part of a giant truck engine malfunctioned, it can take commercial vehicle mechanics to determine what the issue may be.
Once a malfunction is identified, it will need to be determined whether the malfunction was the result of inadequate maintenance of the truck or due to an inherent defect in the truck part. This can require the analysis and testimony of automotive experts, who will need to decide whether the defect was due to a design flaw, improper assembly, or another form of negligence on the part of the manufacturer. It is critical to be represented by an attorney who has the resources to determine all possible liable parties and gather the evidence necessary to prove their negligence.
Read on to learn more about potentially liable parties in truck accident cases in part four of this article series, and never hesitate to discuss your specific situation with an experienced Florida attorney.