The family of a 16-year-old boy from Tijeras who died in a crash in November 2015 was awarded $42 million by a Santa Fe County jury. The 16-year-olds’ Honda Civic was trapped under a semitrailer in the crash on Interstate 40. According to reports of the incident, the victim, Riley Hein, was driving to an early band practice at his high school at approximately 6:15 a.m. A semi-truck pulling a trailer pulled into his lane, forcing him off the road. Hein’s car ricocheted off a concrete barrier, becoming lodged under the trailer. The truck driver wasn’t even aware of the accident – he actually dragged Hein’s car another half-mile down the interstate before the car burst into flames. The fire killed the 16-year-old driver. Because the family had already settled with one of the defendants (and his insurance company), the family will only be able to collect 45% of the total award. However, the family has made it clear that it isn’t about the money – they want to influence important changes in laws regarding side under guard requirements for commercial vehicles. The concept of underride guards was not introduced until the late 1960s after an incident involving the death of an actress; however, the underride guards did not become mandatory until the late 1990s. These laws only pertain to rear underride guards, and the lack of side underride guards have proven dangerous for many. As much as 4,500 people suffer injuries in side underride truck accidents; up to 500 people die in the same accidents every year.
What is Underride?Underride is something that happens in some truck accidents involving passenger vehicles and commercial vehicles. When passenger vehicles crash either into the rear or the side of trailers, they can get lodged underneath. Underride directly leads to passenger compartment intrusion (PCI). PCI occurs when the impact of a collision is focused in the passenger compartment, leading to traumatic injuries (which could result in instant death). Why does PCI occur? The answer is simple and is clear when comparing trailers to passenger vehicles. Passenger vehicles and trailers have a significant height different. All passenger vehicles have a crash/crumple zone designed to absorb the impact of the collision. When underride occurs, the impact occurs in the passenger compartment, usually at the windshield area of the vehicle. In 2015 alone, 4,000 people died as a direct result of truck accidents. In 2017, there were more than 1,600 truck accidents that resulted in side and rear underride. Over a 20-year-period, more than 1,500 people involved in truck accidents died as a direct result of side underride. Even with the legislation regarding the need for rear underride guards to prevent traumatic injuries and fatalities, the instances of underride is prominent. Considering the numbers associated with side underride accidents, there should at least be some sort of legislation on the matter.
Underride and the Federal LawUnderride guards are required by federal law; however, some might say that underride guard laws are outdated. The current guard regulations were implemented in 1996 and amended in 1998. More than 20 years later, there have been no updates. Current law specifically includes FMVSS No. 223 and FMVSS No. 224 which establish the equipment standard and vehicle standard respectively. The equipment standard establishes the specific requirements that the underride guards must meet (strength requirements, testing requirements, installation requirements/instructions. The vehicle standard establishes which types of vehicles (vehicles that weigh 10,000 or more) require to be equipped with under guards and the location of the guards. It is important to note that these regulations only apply to rear underride guards – side underride guards are not required by law.
Issues with Current Underride LawsAlthough there is regulation regarding rear underride guards, rear underride accidents continue to happen – resulting in injuries and fatalities. Underride guards are supposed to prevent passenger vehicles from getting lodged under trailers; however, underride guards are not making a significant difference in the instances of underride in truck accidents. Safety tests (conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) have proven that rear truck underride guards are largely ineffective. Specifically, the safety tests confirmed that underride guards are effective when passenger vehicles crash into the center of the rear guard. However, the safety tests concluded that rear guards are largely ineffective when passenger vehicles crash with the outer edges of the trailers’ rear guards. When rear guards fail to prevent underride, PCI occurs leaving occupants of the passenger vehicle dealing with fatal injuries. In the tests mentioned above, the instances of rear underride guards failing resulted in the crash dummies registering severe head and neck injuries (which would be fatal in real occupants in vehicles). The question is – if the rear underride guards have been proven to be ineffective, why haven’t there been changes to the existing regulations to make these underride guards more efficient? Although there haven’t been changes to regulations, there have been multiple attempts. In 2017, the Stop Underride Act attempted to make important changes to underride guard regulations. Specifically, the act would have resulted in stricter regulations for rear guards (to make them more efficient) and would have mandated trailers to be equipped with side guards. The act failed in 2017. In 2019, it was reintroduced; however, it continues to face opposition.
About Liability in Underride Truck AccidentsIn all sorts of accidents, liability generally depends on the specific details of the case. Liability will always be based on the fact that a specific party owes a duty of care towards another party. In terms of truck accidents, liability can usually fall onto the truck driver – the truck driver should have been driving cautiously to avoid being a risk to others on the road. When truck drivers recklessly or negligently cause accidents, they could be found liable. However, trucking companies could also face liability. Trucking companies have the duty to ensure that their drivers (their employees) are being safe. They have to ensure that their drivers are appropriately trained and qualified to be on the road. They also have the duty to ensure that their commercial vehicles are in a safe condition (including that the trucks meet the minimum underride requirements). Besides truck drivers and trucking companies, the manufacturers of underride guards could also be liable for underride truck accidents. These companies that design and manufacture underride guards have the duty to ensure that their products are safe for their intended use. They must adhere to all regulations and subject their products to tests/inspections to ensure that they are not defective. When defective underride guards are negligently made available for trucking companies to purchase and install, liability for the accident will likely fall back on the manufacturer of the underride guard.
File a Claim and Recover CompensationDo you have the right to file a claim and recover compensation? First and foremost, your right to file a claim is based on the fact that you were owed a duty of care. Depending on the specific details of the accident, you might have grounds to pursue an injury claim, a wrongful death claim, and a product liability claim, for example. If you can file a claim, could you also receive monetary compensation? Your right to recover compensation will always depend on the specific details of your claim. In general, claimants could be eligible to recover compensation for at least some of the following:
- Medical costs
- Lost income
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of consortium
- Funeral and burial costs
- Property damage
- Punitive damage
Important Steps to Consider after an AccidentTo ensure that you preserve the right to take legal action after an underride truck accident (whether you suffered injuries or a member of your family lost his or her life), it is essential that you take the appropriate action as soon as possible. You should consider doing all of the following:
- Photograph the scene of the truck accident
- Photograph all injuries sustained
- Collect insurance information of all parties
- File an incident report with the authorities
- Collect witness information
- Seek medical attention for all harm suffered
- Gather all medical records
- Report incident to insurance companies
- Seek legal assistance with a truck accident underride lawyer