It’s the morning after. You or someone you love is hospitalized with serious injuries, or worse, is dead, as the result of a major collision involving a tractor trailer. The last thing on your mind (for understandable reasons) is a lawyer. However, one of the first things on the trucking company’s corporate mind is a lawyer and the insurance company that the lawyer works for, and rest assured, efforts are being made by both to secure, and in some instances, hide or alter evidence that will ultimately prove detrimental to the trucking company or the driver. While there is little that a lawyer can do to change the past, there is much that a lawyer can do to insure that all available evidence is secured so that a complete and thorough investigation can be undertaken.
Immediately after an accident, the driver will notify the motor carrier. It is common that the carrier and its insurance carrier will immediately dispatch an investigator, hired by the insurance company, to the scene of the accident. We have actually seen photographs taken by law enforcement personnel on the scene that have revealed the presence of insurance company representatives and investigators taken almost immediately after an accident. Those investigators are not there to assist law enforcement personnel; they are there to assist the trucking company and its efforts to avoid liability.
If the law enforcement agency investigating the accident has experience investigating cases involving tractor-trailers, the driver’s log book would typically be examined and/or secured. Alternatively, if the law enforcement agency does not typically investigate such accidents, and therefore, fails to recognize the importance of information contained within the log book immediately after the accident, the driver and the trucking company will gain control over the log book and its content. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations contain certain mandatory requirements for log books, and in the event that the driver’s log book is not complete, the motor carrier and the driver will begin the process of insuring that it is complete. Most importantly, the log book contains information regarding inspections undertaken by the motor carrier and the driver, and what those inspections revealed. Motor carriers and drivers routinely violate the record keeping requirements imposed under the FMCSR’s, and therefore, gaining access to the log book as soon as possible after the accident is critically important.
The vehicle itself, and the trailer is moved from the accident scene once law enforcement agencies clear the accident scene. It is not at all unusual for the vehicle and the trailer to have totally disappeared by the time that a lawyer for the injured claimant gets involved, if a period of weeks elapses between the time of the accident and the date that the lawyer is retained. By that time, motor carriers will contend that it was “necessary” to make repairs to the vehicle/trailer so as to get it back on the road. However, valuable evidence regarding the condition of the vehicle then disappears. Similarly, most vehicles are equipped with computer tracking devices, that record information regarding vehicle speed, destinations, stops/starts, etc., all of which are important in determining liability. However, weeks later (even though the FMCR’s require this information to be maintained by the motor carrier) that information may be “lost.”
The accident scene must be carefully analyzed by an independent accident reconstruction expert, in the event that the investigation conducted by law enforcement personnel does not adequately assess all of the important issues, ranging from lighting conditions, sight lines, and braking distances. If a period of weeks or months elapses, some of the “physical” evidence may have disappeared.
It is therefore important that: (a) someone injured in a tractor trailer accident retain an attorney who has experience handling cases of this type; and (b) that the attorney be engaged as soon as possible. It is not an issue of “looking bad” by immediately hiring a lawyer. It is the issue of insuring that critical and valuable information is secured, and that may necessitate the filing of a lawsuit, immediately, to secure that information.