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Truck accidents can be disastrous, which is why commercial truck owners are required to carry a minimum of $750,000.00 in single-limit coverage. This typically covers the trucking business owner, drivers, and any trucks that are insured under the policy. The policy amounts are so high because litigation costs a great deal in the U.S. (A recent study found that the annual cost of civil lawsuits to the U.S. economy was $233 billion).
Considering the extent of damage that a commercial truck can cause, $750,000.00 may not be enough to cover one plaintiff’s injuries, so it’s important to examine all parties who may be at fault. An often missed defendant is that of the shipper of the load. Who is the shipper? The shipper is the company that hires the commercial trucking company to haul goods from location A to location B. Sometimes the shipping company’s employees even load the cargo, which can mean that the driver of the truck isn’t responsible for shifting or poorly secured contents.
Another common accusation against a shipper is “negligent selection”. A shipper is responsible for choosing a competent and careful contractor to do business with, and may be liable for damages in a personal injury case if it can be proven that they did not take enough care.
In these cases, the courts routinely look at the sophistication of the shipper. The more sophisticated a shipper, based on frequency and size of shipments, the more likely the courts are going to place a higher duty on the shipper for proper selection of a competent carrier to haul goods. Once it has been established that a shipper negligently selected the carrier and that the carrier was incompetent, the assessment shifts to whether or not the shipper knew this.
The most common defense to negligent selection is that the carrier’s duty to investigate did not extend past checking for a satisfactory rating with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association. This is strong because if the carrier has a “satisfactory” rating, they are somewhat presumed to be an appropriate selection. The counter argument is that an employer must investigate further to make sure that the carrier is not manipulating business practices to avoid unsatisfactory ratings, however, this is a weak argument because it would require a never-ending investigation.
Another theory used against a shipper is called “retained control”. This argument states that, at the time of the truck crash, the driver was acting as an agent for the shipper, meaning that the shipper–not the carrier–retained control of the load. Some of the factors that determine whether the shipper maintained control are:
When the answers are “yes”, the logical assumption is that the shipper (instead of the carrier) had retained control of the driver.
This is a continually evolving body of law that extends from state to state and even into the federal courts (due to the nature of commercial truck transporting across state lines). It is important to look at all potential defendants when one is assessing liability in a commercial truck accident, particularly when the injuries involve medical bills that exceed the policy limits or even wrongful death claims. It is during those times that it is important to have a skilled attorney who understands how to address shipper liability.
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