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Can a truck company be held liable for a truck accident?

Truck crashes are a common cause of serious injuries and fatalities on California's roadways. The number of trucks on the road and the common unsafe actions of their drivers mean that there is a significant risk that a truck will be involved in, and potentially the cause of, a serious accident. Because the costs and damages associated with a truck crash can be extremely high in many cases, it is important to know when liability could extend beyond the driver to the truck company, as well.

Truck companies can be held liable for the actions of their employees under the legal theory known as "respondeat superior." In order for the concept of respondeat superior to apply in a particular situation, a plaintiff must prove that the employee driver responsible for causing the accident or acting negligently was acting within the scope of his or her employment. This means that, first of all, a plaintiff must establish that the driver was associated with the trucking company as an "employee" and not as an "independent contractor" most likely cannot sue a trucking company if a driver was associated with the company only as an independent contractor and not as an "employee."

The second inquiry relates to whether or not an employee was acting within the scope of employment. If a driver is driving a vehicle owned by a company when a crash occurred, liability can often extend to the company. There have been cases where a company was held liable for the damages of a crash even when the driver of the vehicle was off-duty, yet still driving the company-owned vehicle, at the time of the crash.

Cell phone use by commercial drivers is a common cause of serious accidents and trucking companies have been held liable both in situations where a driver was using a cell phone while driving for personal reasons and when the driver was using the cell phone to communicate with the trucking company or dispatch. Although the parties involved frequently dispute whether liability extends beyond the driver, plaintiffs should be aware that trucking companies may provide an additional source of liability that could help provide the compensation needed to cover the damages suffered in the accident.

Source: National Safety Council, "Employer Liability and the Case for Comprehensive Cell Phone Policies," last accessed Sept. 21, 2014

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