Fatality and burn injury in truck crash on I-95 at Richmond Hill, Georgia
A fiery crash on I-95 at Richmond Hill near Savannah in Chatham County on July 26th caused the wrongful death of a woman and sent her husband to a specialized burn unit in Augusta. It appears all too typical of other truck accident cases we have handled throughout Georgia, including those in the Savannah area and along I-95 and I-16.
According to news reports, as a southbound tractor trailer approached the exit the driver moved from the center lane to the right lane. Approaching a line of cars slowed in traffic, the truck driver then tried to get back into the middle lane when struck another tractor-trailer, causing it to spin out of control and into the line of cars waiting to exit. The tractor-trailer struck two SUVs. One SUV was thrown over a concrete barrier onto railroad tracks.
The second SUV was pinned against a concrete barrier over the CSX railroad tracks and burst into flames. The occupants, a husband and wife, were caught in their burning vehicle. The wife was killed and the husband was badly burned and transported to a specialized burn unit in Augusta.
As with most fatal traffic crashes on Georgia highways, the Georgia State Patrol Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team (SCRT) is undertaking a painstaking reconstruction of the chain reaction collision. While news reports have not identified the cause of the fatal truck crash, experience in handling many tractor trailer accident cases over the years suggests likely factors, all of which are related to failure of safety management in trucking companies. Truck driver fatigue and distraction are common factors.
Safety management by trucking companies
Most often when commercial truck drivers crash due to fatigue, 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. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations at 49 C.F.R. §390.11 provides: “Whenever . . . a duty is prescribed for a driver or a prohibition is imposed upon the driver, it shall be the duty of the motor carrier to require observance of such duty or prohibition.” In addition, “No person shall aid, abet, encourage, or require a motor carrier or its employees to violate the rules of this chapter.” 49 C.F.R. §390.13.
Speed too fast for conditions is almost always a factor when a tractor trailer crashes into a line of vehicles slowed by traffic conditions or in a construction zone. Excessive speed is involved in 58% of crashes and attributable to the large truck in 65% of those. I suspect that is underestimated because the data comes from police reports. The SCRT unit will gather data from electronic control module and possibly other electronic data sources in the tractor trailers and possibly other vehicle to show the speed, braking and deceleration in each vehicle.
One of the most important and most frequently violated safety rules for truck drivers, as to which motor carriers have a duty to enforce among their drivers, is one related to impaired driving. “No driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness, or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle. . . .” 49 C.F.R. §392.3.
News reports are silent on possible fatigue factors in this crash, but among those we see most often are violation of work hours rules and untreated sleep apnea.
Truck driver fatigue
Hard working truckers tend to drive too long and sleep too little, with outcomes that are predictable. They have “hours of service limits” and are required to log their time driving, on duty but not driving, off duty and in the sleeper berth. The current limits are 11 hours driving out of 14 hours on duty, followed by at least 10 hours off duty, up to 60 hours in a week or 70 hours in an 8 day period on the road. But they can under certain circumstances restart the clock and get behind the wheel. That provision can allow a truck driver to drive up to 81 hours per week.
As many as one-third of truck drivers admit to falsifying their hours of service logs, often under pressure from employers and shippers to get the job done quickly, to meet financial incentives, or simply to make more money. In a truck crash we are handling at I-16 and I-95, we have a video of the truck driver at the scene saying, “I must have went to sleep.”
While there is no easy scientific test to determine when fatigue contributes to the cause of a crash, but we can often peel away the layers of deception through detailed review of trip records. Once after deconstructing his trip records, a trucker in Ohio admitted to me in deposition that he had been driving 20 of the previous 24 hours, had driven from Ohio to Atlanta, back to Ohio, and after a one hour nap started driving back to Atlanta. He ran over a family and killed their son. In another case, a truck driver actually admitted on police video at the crash scene, “I must have went to sleep.”
There is nothing in the news reports to suggest whether or not fatigue related to sleep apnea may have been a factor in this crash, but it is something we look into when appropriate.
The US Department of Transportation Medical Review Board has recommended that individuals with a Body Mass Index (BMI) over 40 “should be referred for diagnostic sleep evaluations.” The National Transportation Safety Board has reported, “Drivers with sleep apnea are seven times more likely to be involved in an automobile accident than those without sleep apnea” Drivers with undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea who are not receiving proper treatment are prone to making critical mistakes or even fall asleep while driving due to their fatigue.” The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has warned truck drivers that, “Untreated sleep apnea can make it difficult for you to stay awake, focus your eyes, and react quickly while driving. In general, studies show that people with untreated sleep apnea have an increased risk of being involved in a fatigue-related motor vehicle crash.”
In one fatal truck crash we have handled, just a cursory review of the driver qualification file in the trucking company’s records revealed that the truck driver was “morbidly obese” with a BMI of 41.5, putting him severely at risk of obstructive sleep apnea. There was nothing in the records to indicate any evaluation or treatment for sleep apnea. After crashing into a clearly visible line of stopped traffic at a red light, he admitted to an officer that he was fatigued four and one-half hours after reporting for work.
While there is nothing in news reports to indicate whether the truck driver was distracted, that is a common factor we investigate in major truck crashes. Cell phones, texting, fiddling with GPS units, food and beverages are among the common causes of driver distraction leading to crashes.
We often fight with trucking companies’ insurers over production and forensic download of data from smart phones that law enforcement typically does not attempt to access. A cell phone download may reveal vice and text connections and use of other communications apps such as Facetime, Facebook Messenger, etc. In addition, GPS data from the cell phone may be compared with electronic data from the truck regarding locations, speed and activity of the truck, and patterns and practices that may cast light upon the root cause of the crash. Cell phone data may reveal the truck driver’s off-duty activities contributing to dangerous fatigue on the job. For example, a driver was working a second job in his off hours which would have contributed to accumulated fatigue, chronic sleep deprivation, and irregular work and rest cycles which could likely lead to the inevitable result of a catastrophic truck crash.
Direct solicitation of accident victims
Victims in such crashes should be aware that any lawyer who directly solicits them is violating both a State Bar ethics rule punishable by disbarment and a Georgia criminal law.
Ken Shigley‘s “singular focus has been filing lawsuits for people hit by trucks.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 7, 2018. He 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.