Four Lessons from the Tracy Morgan Walmart Trucking Accident
Comedian Tracy Morgan has filed a lawsuit against Walmart for injuries Morgan suffered when a Walmart truck slammed into a vehicle in which he was an occupant. Two other occupants were injured and one died. While it is still too early to predict the outcome of the lawsuit, the criminal case filed against the driver suggests that he might have violated hours of service rules. The Morgan case provides an opportunity to consider a number of insights about tractor-trailer cases.
Hours of Service Violations: The trucking industry is subject to an extensive regulatory scheme because of the increased risk associated with vehicles that can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. Hours of service (HOS) rules constitute one of the most important types of regulations that apply to drivers of big-rigs. These rules limit the number of hours that a trucker can be behind the wheel or on-duty during a designated period. HOS guidelines also impose mandatory rest periods. When truck drivers disregard anti-fatigue rules, they can fall asleep at the wheel or exhibit slower response times. In the criminal charges brought against the Walmart driver, the police allege the driver had been awake for more than a 24 hour period and that he fell asleep while driving.
Vicarious Liability Can Be a Valuable Theory of Liability: The legal doctrine of vicarious liability potentially imposes liability on an employer for the negligence of an employee. Generally, the employee must be acting in the course of his employment when the accident occurs. This basically means that the employee is acting for the benefit of his employer rather than acting in the employee’s own personal interest. If the Walmart employee was in transit to pick-up or deliver a load, this might make Walmart vicariously liable for any negligence of the truck driver. Vicarious liability could be important because the truck driver was reportedly asleep and speeding.
Impact of Criminal Charges: The fact that the truck driver is facing criminal charges can benefit Morgan in a civil case for money damages. The driver is charged with both vehicular homicide and multiple counts of vehicular assault. If the driver is convicted, the conviction can help establish fault by the driver. Further, the allegations that the driver was awake for more than 24 hours can potentially help establish negligence by Walmart because the lawsuit alleges that the retailer was negligent in permitting the driver to continue to remain on the road despite his lack of sleep.
Importance of a Trucking Accident Investigation: Because speeding and driver fatigue are alleged as the causes of the fatal trucking accident, a timely investigation to gather driver logs, black box data, fuel and lodging receipts, GPS information and other evidence will be important to prove these violations. The criminal case involves a higher burden of proof, so even if the evidence uncovered is insufficient for the state to obtain a conviction, this does not mean that the evidence will not support civil liability for damages.
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