Settlement in Tractor-Trailer Case that Caused the Death of Army Sergeant

Written by Atlee Hall

An Army sergeant served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, with each of these tours extending to 18 months because he did not want to leave his fellow soldiers. Having served his time in the Army, this soldier decided it was time to return to civilian life, with plans to start a family and become a police officer in a local Pennsylvania community. Honorably discharged after serving ten years, this sergeant loaded all of his belongings into a U-Haul trailer and his pickup truck and started his cross-country trip home to Pennsylvania from the Army base in Washington. Along the way, he stopped at the homes of the parents of fellow soldiers killed in combat. One of those visits was to the family of a friend in Tennessee. After this last visit, he began on the final stretch home to Pennsylvania, when one of the tires on the U-Haul trailer went flat. He pulled off the side of the interstate onto the berm, two feet to the right of the white line. He called U-Haul to come repair the tire, and while he was waiting in the pickup truck he was hit from behind by a tractor-trailer. The truck caught fire and the sergeant was killed in the crash.

Using Evidence to Prove-or Disprove-a Story

Atlee Hall represented the parents and family of this soldier in a lawsuit filed against the driver of the tractor-trailer and the trucking company that employed him. The tractor-trailer driver and the trucking company put forth different stories of what happened and tried to blame the Army sergeant. Initially, it was claimed that the U-Haul trailer became detached from the pickup truck, and that is what caused the collision. When it was proven that the U-Haul trailer was still attached to the pickup truck, the defendants’ story changed, and they instead claimed that the U-Haul trailer was sticking out into the interstate travel lane. When a close examination of the physical evidence at the scene confirmed that the impact occurred two feet off the roadway, the defendants’ story changed again. They then claimed that the tractor trailer driver heard a loud bang and thought the right front drive tire on the tractor had possibly blown out, causing him to lose control. Again, when a close physical examination of the evidence at the scene revealed that there were no markings on the roadway consistent with a tire blowout on the tractor, their story changed again to essentially, “I don’t remember what happened.”

In tractor-trailer litigation such as this, it is vital that critical evidence is immediately documented for future use. Such evidence includes, markings on the roadway, such as gouge marks, tire marks, and yaw marks; the location of pieces of the vehicles involved in the crash; examination of the tractor-trailer and vehicles involved in the crash and their location; any electronic data that may be available from data recording units on either the tractor or the other vehicle; cell phone records; communication device records; and driver logs, either paper or digital. This evidence must be immediately preserved.

The Need for Accurate Records and Applications

After taking the depositions of the Tennessee State Troopers, which proved the defendants’ claims of what happened were indeed fabricated or at least entirely inconsistent with the physical evidence from the scene, we also obtained a copy of the trucking company’s driver qualification file for the driver involved in the crash. This particular tractor-trailer driver had been driving a tractor-trailer for nearly 45 years with a very clean track record. However, in reviewing the file and the medical examination certificates that are required to be obtained for commercial motor vehicle drivers, we noticed that the driver had a history of heart-related problems beginning around 2011. Initially in 2011 and 2013, these health problems were disclosed on the medical application. However, in the year that our crash occurred, there was no disclosure of the prior cardiac-related problems and health concerns on his medical application. This particular driver was 66 years old.  Given his failure to disclose his rather significant cardiac developments, as well as his employer’s failure to review the health applications and recognize that they were incomplete, our position was that the driver and his company obtained the renewal of his medical certificate under false pretenses or, at the very least, information was not disclosed. This would thereby nullify his commercial driver’s license. The driver should never have been on the road without a complete physical and a fully-disclosed health history regarding his past cardiac problems. During the depositions of the tractor-trailer driver and the corporate representatives from the trucking company, all of this information was confirmed in testimony under oath. Our client, the mother of the sergeant who was killed, attended the depositions of the tractor-trailer driver and the trucking company representatives. The tractor-trailer driver was told he was forgiven for causing the crash; however, he could not be forgiven for refusing to accept responsibility for what happened.

Holding Negligent Parties Responsible

Soon after, the case was settled, giving the family closure with respect to the lawsuit and holding the trucking company and its drivers accountable and responsible for this sergeant’s death.

Pennsylvania has the fourth highest tractor-trailer accident rate in the country, resulting in more than 200 deaths annually. Trucking accidents can be caused by lack of driver training, sleep deprivation, or even common distractions like cellphones.

Tractor-trailer crashes and how they are handled in the legal system are very different from other automobile crashes because of the type of trucking regulations involved, the type of documentation required to be maintained by trucking companies, and the different types of information available by way of data and communication devices in the tractor units. A fully loaded tractor-trailer can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. When collisions with automobiles occur, oftentimes they are tragic. Professional truck drivers and the companies that employ them have a heightened duty to make sure drivers are adequately trained, qualified, and capable of driving these big rigs on highways that share the roads with other vehicles.

As a team of trusted, professional trial lawyers, Atlee Hall holds truck drivers, trucking companies, and insurance companies accountable for violating trucking safety rules causing wrongful death and injury to innocent victims.