Truck accident lawsuits are not always as straightforward as they would seem. Liability may be convoluted when trucking companies contract with various entities and individuals to make deliveries. All of that can be compounded even more when an accident involves numerous trucks and other vehicles.
In the case of Baumann v. Zhukov et al., questions of liability where raised in a series of deadly crashes along a Nebraska highway.
It started with two semi-trucks colliding around 4:30 a.m., after one had pulled to the shoulder due to lost air-brake pressure after striking an object in the roadway. The driver of the moving truck was killed, and his truck burst into flames. This resulted in a massive traffic jam. Nearly an hour later, a family, which included a pregnant mother, a father and two young children, was traveling in two vehicles and stopped safely at the end of the traffic jam. However, another tractor-trailer approached from behind and the driver, who had been on the road for 14 hours straight, made no attempt to brake or avoid the cars. The entire family perished.
So the question became whether the truck drivers in the original crash could be liable for causing the accident caused by the traffic jam that resulted from their earlier collision.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit answered: No. In an affirmation of summary judgment, the appeals court ruled that those first two truck drivers – and their employers – couldn’t be held liable because the family’s deaths were not caused proximately by the first two truckers’ negligence. Rather, it was the unanticipated negligence of the third truck driver that served as the efficient intervening cause.
According to the court records in the case, the first truck driver struck some object in the road. This resulted in his vehicle losing air-brake pressure, which caused the spring-powered parking brake to apply automatically. The driver stopped the rig partially in the right-hand lane. Experts would later find he could have pulled all the way onto the shoulder before stopping. But he didn’t do that. He put warning reflectors behind the rig, but they were much closer to his vehicle than federal regulations require. Further, he put them in a formation that seemingly directed traffic to the right, as opposed to the unobstructed left lane.
Just 15 minutes later, a second semi-truck crashed into the first. At no point did that driver attempt to slow down before striking the first semi-truck. The impact killed the driver of the second truck, which burst into flames and scattered debris across the highway.
Emergency responders arrived and a traffic jam started to form. A young family in two vehicles was at the end of it. Vehicles in the lineup – including the victims – activated hazard lights. Also, police fire and ambulance vehicles had overhead lights flashing. Despite all this, the driver of a third semi-truck traveling 75 miles-per-hour failed to stop, brake or swerve to avoid the traffic ahead. The collision propelled the husband’s vehicle into his wife’s vehicle, which then slammed into the semi-truck ahead of it.
It was later concluded the driver of the third semi-truck was fatigued, inattentive and failed to operate his vehicle safely.
A representative for the estate of the family filed a truck accident lawsuit, naming all three truck drivers and the companies for which they were driving, alleging various theories of direct and vicarious liability. Part of the complaint was the negligence of the drivers in the first collision caused a traffic jam that created conditions which reasonably and foreseeably led to the death of this young family.
However, the district court dismissed the claims against the defendants involved in the earlier accident. It was the third truck driver’s negligence that was the intervening cause of the crash, the court ruled. The appeals court agreed.
The claim against the third driver and the company that hired him was settled out-of-court prior to trial.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Baumann v. Zhukov et al., Oct. 1, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
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Arnold v. Security National Ins. Co. – Remittitur of Damages in Florida Crash Case Reversed, Sept. 30, 2015, Fort Myers Truck Accident Lawyer Blog