When handling a commercial truck crash case, we invariably need to protect against spoliation (destruction) of evidence proactively. The tractor-trailer involved in the crash—and all the information that goes with it—is virtually always a central issue in a trucking case. Trucking cases often require an understanding of evidence preservation tactics.
Types of Evidence that Require Preservation in Truck Crash Cases
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) provide the safety framework under which all commercial motor carriers must operate. Trucking companies need to systematically inspect, repair, and maintain all motor vehicles subject to its controls. This general duty of a trucking company to keep its trucks in good working order includes an obligation to maintain repair records and inspection reports, the duty to maintain driver reports, and a duty to make periodic inspections of each vehicle.
The FMCSRs have detailed equipment and tractor-trailer safety provisions. The regulations provide that inspections of the tractor-trailer and any load must occur at various intervals associated with a trip, namely, before, during, and after transit.
Before transit, a trucker must verify that their commercial motor vehicle is appropriately loaded. A trucker will confirm that specified parts and accessories, including emergency equipment, are in good working order during this inspection. The pre-trip inspection also requires a review of the last inspection report for the commercial motor vehicle.
After transit, the truck driver must prepare a written post-trip report that, if applicable, identifies any defect discovered by the driver which would affect the safety of operation of the vehicle. The pre-and post-trip inspection reports, periodic inspection forms, and maintenance records are integral to a tractor-trailer case. Additionally, the information retrieved from Qualcomm, GPS, and ECM “black box” devices is invaluable.
Resources for Commercial Motor Vehicle Inspections
The Federal Motor Carrier Service Administration (FMCSA) Accident Countermeasure Manual, Preventive Maintenance and Inspection Procedures emphasizes the importance of equipment inspections and the need for safe equipment when operating a commercial motor vehicle.
A foundational overview of truck inspections is an ELDTAC training material: Overview of Passenger Carrier Topics and Sub-topics. The state CDL Manuals are also a good resource since almost all describe the 7-step process a trucker must follow for tractor-trailer inspections. Alternative Truck and Bus Inspection Strategies: A Synthesis of Safety Practice, published by the Transportation Research Board, is an excellent resource for truck inspections.
Most Commercial Drivers License (CDL) Manuals, like Indiana’s CDL Manual, emphasize that safety is the fundamental reason to inspect a vehicle—safety for the driver and other road users. The regulations require extensive record-keeping related to interstate trucking equipment. Consequently, the equipment and related documentation are important evidentiary components in a truck accident case.
Hours of Service Logs
Equipment records, however, are not the only records that can be important in a truck crash case. Under the FMCSRs, truckers and trucking companies must also maintain extensive information about the driver. The Hours of Service regulations, for example, require drivers to keep a daily log setting out a complete record of what they have done in each 24-hour period. These records determine if the driver complied with the maximum driving time set out in the regulations. The driver must submit the daily logs to the trucking company within 13 days of completion. The carrier must keep these logs for only six months–so these logs may be discarded before a lawsuit is filed.
To make sense of these Hours of Service (HOS) rules and how they work in real life, we recommend “The Interstate Truck Driver’s Guide to Hours of Service” and the “Hours of Service Logbook Examples.” Both provide clear examples of how the HOS rules work and explain, with examples and illustrations, how a driver should complete a logbook appropriately.
A hired driver must also have the knowledge and skills necessary to safely operate a commercial motor vehicle. The Qualifications of Drivers regulations place numerous obligations on the trucking companies to verify a prospective employee’s qualifications and fitness to operate a commercial motor vehicle.
These obligations begin with the collection of required information during the application process. The duties of a trucking company also include an applicant investigation and background check and performing an employer-conducted road test (or verification of acceptable equivalent). After that, the company must conduct an annual inquiry and review the trucker’s driving record.
Essentially all of the information and materials generated to verify a driver’s qualifications must be maintained by the carrier in the driver’s personnel file. This information includes, among other things, the driver’s application, the road test certificate or equivalent, the annual review of the driver’s driving record, and a list of past violations. Depending on the case, the driver’s qualifications, and the employer’s verification of these qualifications, may be important issues.
Evidence Preservation Tools
The importance of preserving the tractor-trailer and any related equipment and information following a truck crash cannot be understated. Attorneys who handle interstate trucking litigation know that the rule is sooner rather than later when inspecting the tractor-trailer. Unfortunately, however, an immediate inspection is not always an option.
The spoliation letter advises the recipient to preserve all key-related equipment and evidence. In the case of a truck accident, an experienced truck accident lawyer should send a spoliation letter to the truck driver, the trucking company, the insurance carrier, and any other potential defendant. The letter will advise these parties of your claim and describe the documents, inspections, and further investigations you will be initiating. The spoliation letter should end with a clear notice that any failure to maintain evidence will result in a claim for spoliation.
The purpose of the spoliation letter is to proactively put a trucking carrier or driver on notice to preserve evidence material to your case. After the trucking company is notified, it must suspend its routine document retention/destruction policy and preserve relevant documents.
The FMCSRs require a trucking company to keep the driver logs and the supporting documentation for just six months which is often long before the expiration of the statute of limitations. Spoliation letters are essential in interstate trucking cases because commercial motor carriers may destroy documents once the retention period mandated by the FMCSRs expires.
Temporary Restraining Orders
Although the spoliation letter should be sufficient notice, trucking companies and lawyers sometimes refuse to preserve evidence absent a court order. A temporary restraining order or a motion for a protective order puts the trucking company on notice of its duty to preserve the evidence.
Absent a spoliation letter, or temporary restraining order, a trucker or trucking company is in a better position to argue that it could not have reasonably foreseen potential litigation. Do not give them this argument—send out a spoliation letter as soon as you get the case.
If the trucking company and the driver destroy material evidence in your case, you are left with a spoliation claim. Most jurisdictions do not recognize an independent tort for when spoliation is discovered.
Some states allow the jury to presume the destroyed evidence was harmful to the case of the party who controlled the evidence. Such an instruction can be powerful because a certain level of malice is automatically attributed to the company or driver who destroyed the evidence. The evidentiary presumption thus opens the door for the jury to conclude the missing evidence was harmful to the destroying party’s case.
The Best Way to Preserve Evidence in an Interstate Trucking Case is to Move Fast
Poorly maintained or operating vehicle equipment can significantly cause or contribute to a collision on the roadway. Ultimately, your personal injury lawyers will have an understanding of trucking equipment and related documentation. When litigating a semi-tractor-trailer crash case, preserving and understanding the equipment and related information is usually one of the core issues in the case. An experienced attorney will establish a litigation plan that includes an integrated, systematic approach to these core issues in interstate trucking cases.
If you or someone close to you has suffered a serious injury in a truck crash, we are here to help. It’s in your best interest to receive a free case review with an experienced semi-truck accident lawyer.