If you have been injured in an auto or truck crash in Tennessee, you should never sign a release of claims or other document presented to you without first consulting an attorney. Although successful on appeal, one injured driver’s recent case is a cautionary story in this area. He made a major decision in signing a “Release of All Claims” document after relying only upon the statements of people who worked for the trucking company that was potentially liable for his damages. This choice almost cost him his entire chance to pursue his personal injury case — and may yet even after the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the initial decision to throw out his case.
A truck driver’s suit seeking compensation from her trucking company’s insurer for injuries she suffered while asleep in the passenger seat of a company truck proved unsuccessful. The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that the driver was an employee of the trucking company at all times, including while she slept, and the insurer’s policy exception for employee injuries permitted it to refuse the driver’s claim.
April Miller suffered serious injuries while riding as a passenger in a truck owned by Refa Watley Trucking. Miller and another trucker, Lewis Watley, were sharing driving responsibilities for hauling a load from Tennessee to New York when Watley was involved in an accident that caused Miller’s injuries. Miller was asleep at the time of the accident.
In accordance with federal law, all trucking companies are required to carry public liability insurance. However, federal regulations do not require trucking companies to carry insurance covering injuries suffered by employees. Miller brought her claim against the trucking company’s insurer, but the insurance company refused to reimburse her for her damages. The trucking company’s insurer, Northland Insurance Company, concluded that she was an employee, and its policy with the trucking company specifically excluded injuries suffered by employees.
In a recent opinion, Long v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., 203 Tenn.App. LEXIS 405 (Tenn.Ct.App. 2013), the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to two of the defendants involved in a multiple vehicle accident involving tractor trailers and a Greyhound bus. The decision is interesting to lawyers practicing in the area of personal injury, because of its strong affirmation of the legal principle that negligence (and causation) are not amenable to summary judgment. The decision should also be of some interest to lay persons, because, in essence, it puts the question to the jury of whether a motorist doing nothing more than “rubber necking” at the scene of a prior accident can or should be held liable for causing a subsequent accident.
In the Long case, the plaintiff (Ms. Long) was involved in a collision with an eighteen-wheeler truck on Interstate 40 in Tennessee. Ms. Long’s car was smashed and rendered inoperable in the left lane of the highway. Following that collision, another large truck stopped on the right shoulder (emergency lane) of the highway to render assistance. Ms. Long, at some point, crossed the road on foot (or was carried across) to wait for help in the emergency lane. Another car, shortly thereafter, came across the scene and — inexplicably — stopped in the right hand lane. Because there were only two lanes, the highway was now completely blocked. A Greyhound bus then came across the scene of the accident and, unable to stop in time, hit the car which had stopped in the right hand lane, pushing it into the truck parked in the emergency lane and pinning the driver and plaintiff (Ms. Long), causing severe spinal fractures.
The trial court had granted summary judgment to the driver of the late arriving car, finding that as a matter of law her actions in stopping her car were not negligent. It was this decision that the Court of Appeals reversed. In essence, the Court found that there was conflicting testimony in the record about where exactly each of the vehicles was stopped and why. There was evidence that this vehicle was not forced to stop at all, but could have continued traveling past the accident. Or, if they wanted to stop to render assistance, they should have pulled off on to the shoulder. The evidence, however, would support a finding that they stopped without regard to other traffic on the road and thus made a minor accident into a serious one, resulting in permanent and serious spinal injuries. Whether the driver of the second car should be held responsible was determined by the Tennessee Court of Appeals to be a question for the jury.
Government agencies have been partnering together to make Tennessee roads safer for all motorists — and not a moment too soon. Aside from the mild increase of fatalities on the roads involving large trucks from 2011 to 2012, the numbers more than doubled during the first month and a half of 2013, as compared to this time last year. In January and part of February 2012, large trucks were involved in six traffic fatalities; yet this year during the same time frame, 15 fatalities on the roads involved large trucks.
Partly because of their size, trucking accidents can cause extensive damages and injuries, including fatalities. Injured parties may have claims against the driver of the truck, the owner of the trucking company, and a host of other third parties. If you or someone you know has been involved in a trucking accident, you are encouraged to contact an experienced Nashville personal injury attorney to help protect your rights.
Trucking is a large part of the Tennessee economy. The Tennessee Trucking Association provides statistical information about the industry, as prepared by the American Transportation Research Institute. The report reveals that in 2011, the trucking industry accounted for approximately 183,550 Tennessee jobs or, to put it another way, one out of every 12 jobs in the State. More than $7.5 billion in trucking industry wages was paid in 2011. Furthermore, there were over 8,820 trucking companies in Tennessee in 2012. According to the data, these are small, locally owned businesses. This extensive trucking industry is reported to serve over 91% of Tennessee communities.
With such a high percentage of workers in the trucking industry, it is no surprise that just last year, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security teamed up with assorted state and local agencies to institute “Operation Safe Highways,” a statewide safety awareness and enforcement exercise to help make Tennessee safer for all motorists.
As part of this partnered approach, the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) and the Office of Homeland Security organized an effort to inspect commercial vehicles travelling to and throughout Tennessee. In addition to the routine inspection of vehicles, the agencies are looking for other safety violations, such as suspected human or drug trafficking and other Illegal conduct, hauling dangerous materials, and seatbelt violations.
According to a report about Operation Safe Highways, it is anticipated that the trucking industry will play a big part in keeping roads safer. This effort was undertaken partly to make trucking professionals aware of the signs of suspicious behavior so that drivers can report any unusual activity. Because of their vantage point of driving on the roads, truck drivers are considered a unique and integral part of the operation to make the roads in Tennessee safer.
The Tennessee Trucking Association also provides information on the importance of driver safety. Their organization seeks methods to improve driver training, invests in advanced safety technologies and engages in industry safety efforts at all levels: local, state and national.