Our firm has handled several cases arising out of highway crashes involving heavy trucks. In each case a death or serious injury occurred and in many of the cases a design defect in the truck was to blame. In one such case, our client’s husband was driving a log truck for a trucking company when the passenger side wheels of his truck went off the side of the road. Before he could ease the truck back onto the road, the truck flipped over onto the passenger side. When the vehicle turned over, part of the truck’s load slid forward, hitting the piece of metal that the manufacturer called a “cab guard.” The so-called cab guard failed, allowing the few logs that slid forward to press against the back of the cab. The thin metal cab guard was in no way capable of withstanding the forces of a load of logs. When it failed, there was nearly three feet of intrusion into the occupant compartment and the driver was killed as a result. Unfortunately, this is all too common an occurrence in heavy trucks, and it’s not just the cab guard that is often defective. Defective roof structures and defective seatbelts are also common problems in heavy trucks.
Statistical evidence shows that nearly 1,000 heavy truck occupants are killed in crashes every year. In the 1980s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sponsored a number of research papers that evaluated statistical information related to heavy truck crashes in the United States. The reports consistently found that the primary contributing factor to heavy truck occupant fatalities was injury caused by ejection and rollover which involved severe cab deformation and occupant entrapment. The same reports consistently found that the best way to reduce heavy truck occupant fatalities was to enhance the structural integrity of the cabs, and improve methods to reduce occupant impacts with the interior surfaces of the vehicles. Despite this overwhelming evidence, heavy truck crashworthiness and cab roof strength is not regulated by the federal government. In contrast, passenger car manufacturers are required to pass minimum roof strength and crashworthiness standards found in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
Although the crashworthiness of heavy truck cabs is not regulated in the United States, there have been foreign standards in place for years. Heavy trucks sold in foreign countries are required to meet a variety of crashworthiness and roof strength standards including the Swedish standard and the ECE Rule 29 standard. These foreign standards require cab strength testing by static and dynamic loads. These particular tests require impacts to the roof, rear of the cab, front of the cab and the A pillars of the cab.
Apparently, in response to the overwhelming research data, American heavy truck manufacturers undertook the “Heavy Truck Crashworthiness Study” in conjunction with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) during the late 1990s. This study culminated in an SAE recommended practice for testing the strength of heavy truck cabs. Unfortunately, the test does not simulate actual forces that would be imparted into a heavy truck cab that rolled over while travelling down the highway. As a result, heavy trucks manufactured in the United States still provide unsafe cabs of thin aluminum with fiberglass roofs. Therefore, truck occupant fatalities continue to occur in the event of rollovers. It is very difficult for a heavy truck driver to survive a wreck when the roof and cab structure disintegrate around him during a wreck and fail to maintain reasonable occupant survival space.
With such bleak statistics and an almost nonexistent regulatory history, it’s no wonder that heavy truck crashworthiness is an emerging area of product liability litigation. Product liability cases are often overlooked in single vehicle accidents – especially in accidents involving large trucks. However, theories of defect apply equally to 18-wheelers as they do to passenger cars. For example, defective roofs and seatbelts cause injuries in 18-wheeler truck accidents as well as passenger car wrecks.
So, it is important to keep your eyes open while investigating a heavy truck accident so that you don’t miss important product liability issues such as defective cab guards, roof structures and seatbelts. If you need additional information relating to this subject, contact Ben Baker (Ben.Baker@beasleyallen.com), Chris Glover (Chris.Glover@beasleyallen.com) or Rick Morrison (Rick.Morrison@beasleyallen.com) at 800-898-2034.
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