A commercial vehicle is defined as a vehicle used for business or commercial purposes. While people often associate commercial vehicles with 18-wheelers or delivery trucks, some may not realize is that any vehicle being used for business purposes can technically be considered a commercial vehicle – even passenger cars. Other types of commercial vehicles include passenger buses, passenger vans, limousines, hearses, cement mixers, garbage trucks, tow trucks – even food trucks and ice cream trucks.
Commercial Vehicle Accident Cases are very different from car accident cases. Because of the larger size and weight of many commercial vehicles (large commercial trucks can weigh 20-30 times as much as passenger cars), when they collide with normal-size vehicles the risk of serious injury and death is greatly increased. In fact, when commercial vehicles collide with passenger vehicles, about 96 percent of all deaths happen to the occupants of the smaller vehicle. Because the risk of serious injury and death is so much greater when large commercial vehicles are involved in accidents, there are strict state and federal regulations that govern the hiring, training and supervision of drivers, require adequate maintenance of the vehicles, and mandate much higher liability insurance limits. With the complex regulatory requirements involved and higher insurance limits at risk (often in excess of $1 million), commercial trucking companies (and their insurance companies) will spend the money to hire a team of highly qualified defense counsel to vigorously defend these cases. In addition, most commercial trucking companies either have in-house risk management departments or they hire independent risk management companies that are on stand-by 24/7 and are ready to deploy a team of accident investigators and reconstruction experts to the scene of the crash right after it happens to begin gathering all the evidence that they can find to defend against claims made by injured or killed victims and their families. If contacted quickly, the right personal injury lawyer can help level the playing field by sending a team of accident investigators and reconstruction experts that work for you – they will examine the scene, inspect the vehicles involved, download important data from the vehicles’ “black boxes” and gather the evidence you will need to win your case.
Larger commercial vehicles are subject to strict safety regulations.
Under federal regulations, a commercial motor vehicle engaged in transporting goods or passengers in interstate commerce (across state lines) is defined as any vehicle that:
- Has a gross vehicle weight rating or combined weight rating of 10,001 pounds or more; or
- Is designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers, including the driver, for
- Is designed or used to transport more than 15 passengers, including the driver, and is not
used to transport passengers for compensation; or
- Is used to transport hazardous materials in certain quantities.
If a vehicle meets the above definition of a commercial motor vehicle, then both the driver and the vehicle must comply with certain Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCRS) that require the driver to be licensed and qualified, they must comply with specific safety requirements, the driver may be subject to hours of service rules (how many hours the driver is allowed to be working and driving) and the vehicle will need to undergo a scheduled maintenance program and be inspected before and after each trip.
In Texas, a commercial motor vehicle operated solely intrastate (only within Texas and does not cross state lines) is defined as a vehicle that:
- Has a gross vehicle weight rating or combined weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more; or
- Any tow truck regardless of weight; or
- A farm vehicle or combination of farm vehicles with a weight rating of 48,000 pounds or
- Is designed or used to transport more than 15 passengers, including the driver; or
- Is used to transport hazardous materials in certain quantities; or
- Is operated by a motor carrier transporting household goods for compensation regardless of weight.
Intrastate commercial motor vehicles that fall within this definition are governed by the FMCSR, subject to certain exemptions under Texas law (for example, Texas exempts certain vehicles used in oil or water well servicing/drilling, mobile cranes, vehicles transporting seed cotton, etc.).
Common Types of Commercial Vehicle Accidents:
Depending upon the type of commercial vehicle involved in an accident, there are special rules and legal issues that may come into play.
Trucking / 18-Wheeler Accidents
Tractor-trailers, also known as “18-wheelers,” “semi-trailers,” or “big rigs” are the largest commercial vehicles on the road. They are the most dangerous and therefore are the most regulated, but there are many factors to consider in determining which federal or state safety regulations may apply. And there are unique factors to consider in any accident-cause analysis involving an 18-wheeler. These trucks are big – they have different blind spots, turn differently and have a higher center of gravity – making them prone to roll-overs – and have greater ground clearance that can result in smaller vehicles going under the trailer during crashes (under-riding). These trucks are also very heavy. Trucks often weigh 20-30 times as much as passenger cars. As such, it takes much longer to stop a tractor-trailer than a normal passenger vehicle. On average, loaded tractor-trailers take 20-40 percent farther to stop than cars. While a passenger car may need about 306 feet to stop after braking, a tractor-trailer may need 525 feet – that’s around the length of 1.5 football fields. Speed is also an important factor – the faster a vehicle is traveling, the longer it takes to stop. Because of the size and weight of a semi-truck, fatalities and serious truck accident injuries are common. There is also the truck driver to consider because the driver’s qualifications, training and supervision are important. Truck driver fatigue is a well-known crash risk. Drivers of large trucks are allowed by federal hours-of-service regulations to drive up to 11 hours at a stretch. Unfortunately, surveys indicate that many drivers violate these regulations and work longer than permitted.
Delivery Truck / Box-Truck Accidents
Delivery trucks are on the roads more than ever. With more and more packages, groceries and supplies being delivered via online shopping, delivery trucks on our roads – including United Parcel Service (UPS), FedEx, USPS, Amazon and many other delivery companies – are only going to increase. And while this is a great thing for the convenience to all of us on-line shoppers, what many people don’t realize is that these delivery trucks are increasingly causing serious injury and death on our roadways and in our neighborhoods – not only due to more delivery trucks being on the road, but by the unsafe manner in which many delivery companies are operating. Local deliveries are usually being done by delivery box-trucks or delivery vans. While there are safety issues common to both, there are some important differences.
Box-trucks are not easy to drive. They are high-profile, unstable trucks, often with manual transmissions. And if the driver is not properly trained to drive the box-truck safely, they can be prone to tip-overs and loss of control of the vehicle. Also, because these box trucks are constantly being loaded with differing cargos, the weight and balance of the trucks often vary depending upon the cargo and how it was loaded. If the trucks are not being loaded properly to ensure a proper weight-balance, this can be especially dangerous. And while loading considerations are still important for delivery vans, it’s less of a concern due to the van not being as high profile and has a lower center of gravity than a box-truck.
Another, and perhaps more serious safety concern, are the delivery drivers themselves. These delivery drivers are logging millions of miles every day throughout our communities, including high-risk environments like neighborhoods where people jog and our children play. And these delivery drivers are often under constant pressure from their company. Not only are the delivery drivers expected to complete their deliveries as quickly as possible, but they often work under relentless demands to deliver more and more packages, sometime hundreds of packages per route, each at the direction of dispatchers who often require the delivery drivers to skip meals, forego bathroom breaks, and do not allow them to rest until the very last package is delivered.
Some common causes of delivery truck crashes include the following:
- Speeding. When delivery drivers are made to deliver increasing numbers of packages within a very limited period-of-time, it will necessarily lead to speeding and reckless driving.
- Distraction. Having the delivery driver consult a phone, ipad or similar GPS device to follow unfamiliar delivery routes and to locate a particular address while driving can distract a delivery truck driver to the point of causing a serious collision.
- Driver Fatigue. Delivery drivers who are compelled to work long hours without adequate rest breaks are in danger of becoming fatigued. And it is well-known and scientifically proven that fatigued driving can be as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol.
- Lack of Training / Inexperience. Often because of low pay, long hours, and the high stress of the job, turnover among some delivery company drivers is high. As a result, some delivery companies are not investing the necessary time and expense to hire and train qualified drivers to ensure they are safe. Instead, they often rush them into delivery routes as fast as possible.
- Unsafe vehicles. A delivery truck out of service costs the delivery company money. Unfortunately, some unsafe delivery companies keep their trucks in service too long between maintenance inspections, operating trucks with underinflated and balding tires, cracked or missing sideview mirrors, and other unsafe mechanical issues that can lead to tragic consequences.
Many of these unsafe conditions can be eliminated by delivery companies following safe practices. Safe delivery companies:
- Provide adequate hiring and training practices to ensure safety – to include drivers, cargo loaders, dispatchers and management.
- Implement policies that set overtime limits and maximum allowable consecutive shifts.
- Ensure sufficient staffing levels across operations.
- Ensure a sufficiently sized vehicle fleet that allows for the need for out-of-service vehicles
- Routinely and adequately inspect, maintain and repair their vehicles.
- Install safety monitoring technology in their vehicles and monitor to detect unsafe driving, such as excessive speed or lane departures.
- Employ mapping and routing technology to ensure both efficiency and safety
- Train incident investigators to assess the role of fatigue and other factors in incidents and near-miss incidents to re-train drivers or dismiss habitually unsafe drivers.
When a delivery driver hits you or a loved one, you might have multiple claims against multiple companies. However, you can’t necessarily determine a delivery driver’s employer by the logo on the truck or by the uniform the delivery driver wears. Many large delivery companies, such as FedEx and Amazon, outsource their deliveries to independent delivery companies – some of whom may not be operating safely. And often, the large delivery company will deny any responsibility, placing blame squarely on the independent delivery company. An experienced personal injury specialist will have to assess and determine the proper companies involved and who may be financially responsible under the law.
In addition to the requirements imposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) for tow trucks if they are considered to be “commercial motor vehicles” under the Federal Regulations (for-hire tow trucks with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) or GCWR of 10,000 pounds or more performing emergency tows in interstate or foreign commerce) Texas regulates tow trucks and requires that each tow truck have a permit to operate on public streets. There are three types of tow truck permits in Texas – Incident Management, Private Property, and Consent. An Incident Management towing permit is required to perform a non-consent tow initiated by a peace officer. A Private Property towing permit is required to perform a non-consent tow authorized by a parking facility. A Consent towing permit allows towing authorized by the vehicle owner. While there are different liability insurance requirements for each type of permit, all of them require an application, proof of insurance, and submission of a criminal background check. A tow truck operator is required to obtain a towing operator’s license that must be renewed annually. The towing company is also required to be licensed and is subject to periodic inspections, including a mandatory inspection at least once every two years.
Passenger vans and buses
Under Texas law, passenger vans and buses are considered to be “common carriers” which includes any individual or business transporting members of the public in exchange for money. Examples of Common Carriers under Texas law include:
- Buses (public, private, school)
- Airport and hotel shuttle buses
- Ride-share vehicles
- Light rail
Given the fact that a common carrier’s purpose is to carry passengers, passenger van and bus drivers are expected to exercise a higher duty of care to their passengers than ordinary drivers – because these van and bus drivers are professional drivers transporting the most valuable cargo – people!
Vans and Buses – Insurance and Compensation
There is a complicated patchwork of laws and regulations (both Federal and State) that apply to passenger vans and buses. Some key questions involve:
· Is the passenger van or bus operated by a governmental-entity?
· Is the van or bus only used within the State of Texas or does it cross state lines?
· How many passengers is the van or bus designed to transport?
Governmental-Entities (city buses, school buses, etc.)
Governmental entities have “sovereign immunity” which generally means that you can’t sue the government for money damages. Of course, this resulted in some very unfair results – a city bus driver could negligently cause crashes, seriously maiming and killing people, and your case would be thrown out of court due to sovereign immunity. In 1969, Texas passed the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) that allows certain exceptions to the rule of sovereign immunity – one exception is when the employee of a govermental entity is negligent and the resulting injury is caused by the “operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment.” Two basic things that are important to understand about the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA):
1. Notice Requirements
The Texas Tort Claims Act requires the extra step of notifying the relevant government agency of your potential injury claim. This requirement is found under Section 101.101 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code:
NOTICE. (a) A governmental unit is entitled to receive notice of a claim against it under this chapter not later than six months after the day that the incident giving rise to the claim occurred. The notice must reasonably describe:
(1) the damage or injury claimed;
(2) the time and place of the incident; and
(3) the incident.
(b) A city’s charter and ordinance provisions requiring notice within a charter period permitted by law are ratified and approved.
(c) The notice requirements provided or ratified and approved by Subsections (a) and (b) do not apply if the governmental unit has actual notice that death has occurred, that the claimant has received some injury, or that the claimant’s property has been damaged.
It’s important to understand that the notice period is “not later than six months after the incident.” However, a city through its charter can make the notice period sooner – some are as little as 45 days depending on the city – and every city in Texas has its own TTCA notice deadline. If you don’t submit your notice in the time specified then your claim may be forever lost.
2. Damage Caps
Under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) the Texas Legislature limited how much you could recover from a governmental-entity – sometimes referred to as “damage caps.” These limitations on recovery or “damage caps” are found in Section 101.023 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code:
(a) Liability of the state government under this chapter is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $250,000 for each person and $500,000 for each single occurrence for bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property.
(b) Except as provided by Subsection (c), liability of a unit of local government under this chapter is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $100,000 for each person and $300,000 for each single occurrence for bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property.
(c) Liability of a municipality under this chapter is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $250,000 for each person and $500,000 for each single occurrence for bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property.
(d) Except as provided by Section 78.001, liability of an emergency service organization under this chapter is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $100,000 for each person and $300,000 for each single occurrence for bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property.
So, if the governmental entity is a “state government” or “municipality” then recovery for personal injuries is limited to $250,000 for each person and $500,000 for each single occurrence – which means no single injured person can ever recover more than $250,000 and the governmental-entity will never have to pay more than $500,000 per accident regardless of the number of people injured. If the governmental entity is a “local government” or “emergency-service organization” then recovery for personal injuries is limited to $100,000 for each person and $300,000 for each single occurrence. While the TTCA does not define “local government,” under Texas case law the term includes counties, school districts, hospital authorities, and community centers.
Whether the van or bus is only used within the State of Texas (intrastate) or if it crosses state lines (interstate) as well as how many passengers the van or bus is designed to transport
If the van or bus only travels inside of the State of Texas (intrastate) then it is subject to the Texas Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (TMCSR). If the bus travels out-of-state (interstate) then it is required to follow the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR).
Under the TMCSR, vans or buses with a seating capacity of 15-26 passengers must carry a minimum of $500,000 in liability insurance. If the bus has a seating capacity of more than 26 passengers, then it is required to carry a minimum of $5 million.
Under the FMCSR, a van or bus with a seating capacity of 15 or fewer passengers must carry $1,500,000.00 in coverage while any vehicle for hire with a seating-capacity of 16 or more must carry $5 million. However, the Federal Regulations specifically exempts from these insurance requirements: school buses, buses on school trips, taxicab services with a seating capacity of fewer than seven passengers and a vehicle carrying less than sixteen individuals in a single daily round trip to commute to and from work.