A young truck driver from California lost his life on the side of I-16 in Laurens County, Georgia, on March 2nd. This tragedy highlights how truck drivers are in one of the most dangerous occupations.
Shortly after 5 a.m., an 18-wheeler loaded with tangelos from Delano, California, sideswiped a disabled tractor-trailer on the right shoulder on I-16. The California citrus truck then went off the right side of the highway into a ditch and overturned, striking a a tree and destroying the cab. The 22-year-old truck driver died at the scene.
The driver of the other 18-wheeler had mechanical trouble and had been parked on the shoulder for nine hours since about 8 p.m. Thursday, according to the Georgia State Patrol. He was not hurt.
The circumstances of this crash raises a question of whether the truck parked on the shoulder may have violated safety rules on visibility of parked trucks on the road, contributing to cause of the crash.
Most often when commercial truck drivers crash the root cause analysis leads back to corporate management issues as the motor carrier had a duty under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations to require observance by their drivers of safety rules. Trucking companies are required to manage safety so as to require their drivers to follow the rules. In a crash involving two interstate tractor trailers, that analysis may involve both companies.
As with most fatal traffic crashes on Georgia highways, the Georgia State Patrol Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team (SCRT) probably undertook a detailed reconstruction of the crash. In most tractor trailer accident cases over the years we have seen that failure of safety management in trucking companies. If the employer of the stopped tractor trailer did not enforce safety rules about visibility of stopped trucks, that could be a big factor.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations at 49 C.F.R. § 392.22 requires:
(a) Hazard warning signal flashers.
Whenever a commercial motor vehicle is stopped upon the traveled portion of a highway or the shoulder of a highway for any cause other than necessary traffic stops, the driver of the stopped commercial motor vehicle shall immediately activate the vehicular hazard warning signal flashers and continue the flashing until the driver places the warning devices required by paragraph (b) of this section. The flashing signals shall be used during the time the warning devices are picked up for storage before movement of the commercial motor vehicle. The flashing lights may be used at other times while a commercial motor vehicle is stopped in addition to, but not in lieu of, the warning devices required by paragraph (b) of this section.
(b) Placement of warning devices –
General rule. Except as provided in paragraph (b)(2) of this section, whenever a commercial motor vehicle is stopped upon the traveled portion or the shoulder of a highway for any cause other than necessary traffic stops, the driver shall, as soon as possible, but in any event within 10 minutes, place the warning devices required by § 393.95 of this subchapter, in the following manner:
(i) One on the traffic side of and 4 paces (approximately 3 meters or 10 feet) from the stopped commercial motor vehicle in the direction of approaching traffic;
(ii) One at 40 paces (approximately 30 meters or 100 feet) from the stopped commercial motor vehicle in the center of the traffic lane or shoulder occupied by the commercial motor vehicle and in the direction of approaching traffic; and
(iii) One at 40 paces (approximately 30 meters or 100 feet) from the stopped commercial motor vehicle in the center of the traffic lane or shoulder occupied by the commercial motor vehicle and in the direction away from approaching traffic.
Warning devices may be reflective triangles or flares, though reflective triangles are most common. The Commercial Drivers License (CDL) Manual at Section 2.5.2 goes into more detail about placement of warning devices:
Other drivers may not notice your vehicle even when it’s in plain sight. To help prevent accidents, let them know you’re there.
. . . .
When Parked at the Side of the Road.
When you pull off the road and stop, be sure to turn on the four-way emergency flashers. This is important at night. Don’t trust the taillights to give warning. Drivers have crashed into the rear of a parked vehicle because they thought it was moving normally.
If you must stop on a road or the shoulder of any road, you must put out your emergency warning devices within ten minutes. Place your warning devices at the following locations:
If you must stop on or by a one-way or divided highway, place warning devices 10 feet, 100 feet, and 200 feet toward the approaching traffic.
News reports of this crash do not reveal whether the disabled tractor trailer had reflective triangles or flares, but none are visible in news photos and video of the crash scene.
Georgia wrongful death law provides for recovery of the “full value of the life” of the decedent, including both economic and intangible aspects of what the decedent’s life was worth to him. There is no deduction for living expenses and no need to prove dependency. If a person dies due to the fault of someone else, Georgia law defines who has the claim for wrongful death. If married, the surviving spouse has the claim. If married with children, the statute defines the formula for dividing recovered funds between the spouse and children. If not married, the parents of the deceased have the right to recover for the wrongful death. If there is no surviving spouse, children or parent, then the representative of the estate can make the claim on behalf of heirs at law. There is never a wrongful death in Georgia for which no one can make the claim.
Of course, whenever anyone runs into a stopped truck, there is a question whether he was partially or entirely at fault even if the stopped truck did not have hazard flashers, reflective triangles or flares as required by law. Defense lawyers would certainly explore issues of driver impairment by fatigue affecting the young truck driver who was killed. Under Georgia’s modified comparative negligence law, if the victim is responsible for more than 50% of negligence leading to his injury, he or his survivors get nothing. If less than 50%, the recovery is reduced by the percentage of his negligence.
It is for the jury to decide negligence of all parties and the amount of damages.
Ken Shigley‘s is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia, past chair of the State Bar’s Tort & Insurance Practice Section, past chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute, past chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section, and a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys. He is lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (Thomson Reuters West, 2010-2018). His law practice is focused on catastrophic injury and wrongful death including those arising from commercial trucking accidents and those involving brain, neck, back, spinal cord, amputation and burn injuries. Work on all these types of cases requires expertise in insurance law.