A July 2007 decision by the Nebraska Court of Appeals provides some interesting insight into how courts determine defendant/plaintiff liability in intersection crashes involving passenger and commercial vehicles. This court decision pertained to a 1999 crash in which the plaintiff's passenger vehicle (a pickup truck) collided with the defendant's commercial refuse vehicle at the intersection of an Interstate exit ramp and a major cross-street thoroughfare. It happened during daylight hours, but weather conditions were poor and roads generally snow-packed.
An eyewitness said that after coming to a complete stop at the intersection's stop sign, the refuse truck turned right and proceeded south on the thoroughfare. The eyewitness looked in his side mirror and saw a small pickup “come flying across the first thoroughfare lane” and get hit by the garbage truck; he did not stop at the stop sign.
The driver of the pickup claimed no liability for the crash and asserted that the garbage truck operator was solely negligent based on the following three points:
Operator had violated federal regulations with respect to driver work hours;
Operator's vehicles were unsafe;
Driver was sleep deprived.
For the first, the plaintiff provided State Motor Carrier Safety Reviews indicating that the refuse company repeatedly violated rules relating to the amount of time its drivers could work.
For the second, it introduced roadside safety inspection reports that showed the defendant's vehicles had been inspected numerous times and that violations were often found, including out-of-adjustment brakes, inadequate tire tread depths and damaged windshields.
To support the third claim, the plaintiff called a noted sleep specialist who testified that in his opinion the defendant was impaired by sleep deprivation because he got up very early each morning, worked alone and for long hours, and had a motor vehicle history that included some accidents and traffic violations.
In evaluating those claims, the Court said that although true, they did not meet the legal standard of negligence. By that definition, negligence must be such that without it the injury would not have occurred, and the injury must be the natural and probable result of the negligence.
The Court noted that the day before the crash a “Vehicle Repair Order” had been completed for the garbage truck, describing the nature of the services as “adjust for brakes” and listing the mechanic's name and an appropriate repair code.
With regard to the driver's sleep deficit, the Court confirmed that there was no evidence the driver was sleepy or inattentive at the time of the accident.
This Court decision has important implications for safety and fleet managers. First, we must realize that either party can introduce company and government records. Second, evidence that you have implemented safety management systems such as fatigue management and vehicle inspection repair and maintenance can be critical to your defense.
Finally, it's crucial to train your drivers as to their responsibility at an accident scene. It was the testimony of the eyewitness that provided damning evidence regarding the negligence of the driver of the pickup.
I urge you to determine whether you could defend your fleet against the kind of claims made in this seemingly routine case.
Jim York is the ass't. vice president of technical services for Zurich Services Corp. Risk Engineering in Schaumburg, IL.