Articles Posted in Spoliation of Evidence

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Have you ever driven right next to a big commercial truck, like an 18-wheeler, semi-truck, tractor-trailer, or big rig? Have you seen a big truck crash into another car? Have you worried what would happen if that car was yours and you were driving? If you answered yes, you’re probably not alone. In fact, if you get hit by any type of vehicle, 18-wheeler included, it’s common for lots to be going through your mind. In the event you or a loved one has been hurt in a wreck with a truck, here are common questions that may be on your mind.

What should I do first after a truck accident?

Immediately after the accident, police likely came to the scene. In most states, like Tennessee, the law requires police to be called after an accident causing personal injury or property damage. The police should take statements from the parties, photos, and witness statements. However, you should still document everything you can, including witness information, pictures of the vehicles, pictures of your injuries, and any other relevant information. For instance, if you suffered bruising or scarring, make sure to photograph those areas. Further, sometimes witnesses are left off of a police report. If you get their information, your attorney can contact that person to get his or her version of events. It is always beneficial to secure as much evidence as possible after a crash involving a semi-truck.

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You’ve probably heard the phrase “black box” in terms of aircraft and planes. Any time a plane crashes, black box data can be reviewed to gain insight as to what happened in the moments leading up to the crash. This is particularly valuable to assist in recreating the crash, getting to the bottom of what happened, and learning how to correct potential mistakes in the future. What you may not know is that most large commercial trucks, like 18-wheelers, come equipped with a black box as well.

What Is a Black Box?

Black boxes are often referred to as Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs). They are designed to detect certain actions and data that can provide insight into how and why a collision occurred. They record this information, and data gained from the 5-10 seconds before the crash can be critical when it comes to investigating the accident. Federal trucking regulations instituted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) require interstate commercial trucks to be equipped with ELDs. In addition to preserving information about a crash, these devices serve another valuable purpose – they can monitor driving time to ensure that truck drivers comply with federal hours of service guidelines, which are rules put in place to limit truck driver fatigue.

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In a traditional auto accident case, evidence regarding how the collision occurred can come from many sources – statements of the drivers, the police officer’s investigation, witness testimony, analysis of the property damage, nearby surveillance footage, and more. When a commercial truck or 18-wheeler is involved, the number of potential sources of information increases exponentially. Thus, an experienced truck accident lawyer will want to take certain steps to make sure certain evidence remains preserved and is not intentionally destroyed or allowed to disappear in the trucking company’s ordinary course of business. One such step is to send a spoliation of evidence letter to the trucking company and its insurance carrier(s).

Evidence to establish liability in a truck accident case can come from a variety of sources, including:

  • The truck itself: Following an accident, a truck may be taken out of commission, depending on the damage. If the truck was towed, the trucking company may immediately retrieve the vehicle, repair it, and put it back on the road. Photographs of the damaged truck and measurements can come in handy later in the case.
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In the United States, truck drivers are required to maintain a logbook tracking their hours while on the road. These logbooks are regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). In these logbooks, drivers are required to catalog their hours on and off the road. The purpose is to ensure that truck drivers are getting enough rest and are not driving for extended periods of time, which may result in drowsy driving. However, many drivers falsify logbook entries, either at the request of a trucking company or for their own personal gain. This leads to fatigued drivers operating heavy machinery at high speeds. Bottom line: logbook falsifications can have deadly results.

A typical commercial trucking logbook has space to document off duty, sleep, driving, and on duty hours. These lines correspond with a 24 hour schedule. A completed logbook would ideally show a driver’s schedule, from the minute they pick up their cargo to their time off duty. Ideally, all hours in a day would be accounted for. These entries are signed by each driver, and drivers are trusted with filling these out truthfully. Not surprisingly then, falsifying a log is not looked upon highly by judges and juries when the truck driver’s negligence caused a serious car accident.

Any driver that fails to complete the record of duties performed or makes false reports on a log can be subject to prosecution. Despite this punishment, many drivers continue to falsify logbook entries. Often, drivers claim that they were “forced” by their trucking company to falsify entries. Trucking companies may put unattainable deadlines on deliveries, and as a result, many drivers feel that they must falsify information or risk being fired. This excuse does not always hold up well, and drivers can still be found liable for false entries, regardless of circumstantial pressure.

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One of the most important concerns following a trucking accident is the preservation of evidence.  Conducting a thorough investigation following an accident is of the utmost importance, and is essential to the development of claims against trucking companies. Truck drivers and trucking companies must follow specific rules and procedures known as Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.  Experienced attorneys will arrange detailed inspections of the truck involved in the accident, and will seek data, documents and information about the truck and the accident. Obtaining this information can help the victim prove a truck driver’s negligence.

Items like driver logs, on-board computer data, daily inspection reports and the damaged truck itself are important in determining the potential causes of the accident, as well as any violations of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.  This information may assist in documenting the speed of the truck at impact, maintenance issues with the truck, as well as whether driver fatigue may have been a factor based on the driver operating over the allowable hours of service.  Evidence from a commercial truck or 18-wheeler is also essential for experts to review for the reconstruction of the accident as well as the assessment of violations of trucking standards.

Although trucking companies are aware of the importance of this information, they are also eager to put their trucks back in service as quickly as possible following an accident, which may result in this crucial information being “lost” in the early stages of the litigation. When a trucking company fails to preserve evidence that is relevant to a claim following an accident, this is referred to as spoliation of evidence.   Spoliation can be intentional or unintentional.  Even where a trucking company negligently loses or destroys documents or information, they may be liable for spoliation of evidence under the law.

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There are over 3,000 fatal crashes involving large trucks or buses each year in the United States. With many of these crashes, the trucking company involved will often state that the crash was a “true accident” and that its driver was faced with a sudden emergency that he or she could not avoid.

In October 2016 in New Orleans, a truck killed three pedestrians after leaving the roadway.  The truck driver, operating a tow truck and actively towing a vehicle at the time, crossed an overpass and crashed into a bus stop where the victims were standing.  According to the trucking company, their driver “completely blacked out” while having a seizure.  While the New Orleans Police Department stated that there was an ongoing investigation as to the cause of the fatal accident, the trucking company has stated that the seizure suffered by their driver was his first seizure, and that doctors have confirmed this diagnosis and even prescribed him anti-seizure medication following the crash.  Within days of the fatal crash, the victims’ families were contacted by lawyers for the trucking company.  The trucking company has expressed its sorrow and condolences to these families for what they are calling a “true accident.”

In calling this event a “true accident,” this trucking company is likely doing what many companies do following an accident of this type:  asserting what is called a “sudden emergency defense” and stating that there was no way their driver could have avoided this crash, all in a calculated effort to avoid liability.  In the face of a true sudden emergency, a driver is expected to act with reasonable care under the emergency circumstances, which may serve to reduce a driver’s legal responsibility for the injuries they cause.

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