Phoenix Commercial Vehicle Accident Lawyers
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All personal injury accidents are unique and, therefore, require the case-by-case attention of an experienced personal injury attorney. This is especially true with commercial vehicle accidents, which are often more factually and legally complex than more commonplace accidents involving only non-commercial vehicles. Our Phoenix commercial vehicle accident lawyers have years of experience handling these kinds of personal injury cases and we are ready to handle yours.
Zinda Law Group is here to help. If you or a loved one has been hurt by a company vehicle in the Phoenix metropolitan area, call Zinda Law Group at (800) 863-5312 for a 100% free consultation with experienced Phoenix commercial vehicle accident lawyers today.
commercial vehicle accidents – an overview
From the onset, victims of commercial vehicle accidents should recognize that these accidents are quite different from accidents involving only non-commercial vehicles. Typically, commercial vehicle accidents are much more complex. This section will explore some of the key differences.
What is a Commercial Vehicle?
The first and most obvious difference is the nature of the vehicles themselves. What is a “commercial” vehicle? The difference is straightforward but leads to numerous consequences.
Basically, any vehicle used in the operation or furtherance of a business may be classified as a commercial vehicle. Of course, this includes vehicles owned by the business, but it may also include privately owned vehicles when they are used for business purposes.
Though many types of vehicles, both large and small, may fall into the definition, it is worth emphasizing that many commercial vehicle accidents are characterized by the size discrepancy between the vehicles involved. For example, consider an accident involving a commercially licensed 18-wheeler and a private four-door sedan. In the event of a collision, the passengers of the sedan are at much greater risk of injury simply because they are outsized by the 18-wheeler.
Read more: FMSCA, 2020 Pocket Guide to Large Truck and Bus Statistics; Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 2019 Fatality Facts—Large Trucks
How are Commercial Vehicle Accidents Different?
Sources of Liability
Another distinguishing factor of commercial vehicle accidents are the potential sources of liability. For example, take the 18-wheeler hypothetical discussed above. In the event of a collision, liability may flow from the shipper, the trucking company, the loader, brokers, and even truck or truck parts manufacturers.
Timing of Liability
A second distinguishing factor is that, in commercial vehicle accidents, liability may start long before the date of the actual accident. At-fault parties may be liable for the long-term perpetuation of unsafe company practices, negligent hiring (not properly vetting potential employees), negligent supervision (not properly ensuring work is being performed safely), negligent retention (not removing an employee after their dangerous propensities become apparent), and even for covering up violations.
Scale of Liability
A third distinguishing factor is the monetary scale of liability. All drivers have a responsibility to operate their vehicles safely; however, operators of commercial vehicles are often held to a higher standard of care because the nature of their work (for example, driving a large 18-wheeler among more vulnerable vehicles) often presents heightened risk to the general public. In other words, because commercial vehicles often introduce a higher risk of catastrophic injury, monetary compensation for the accidents and injuries they cause is correspondingly higher.
Finally, a fourth distinguishing feature is the intensified litigation that often takes place in commercial vehicle accident cases. Because of the high monetary value of these cases, defendants often litigate more vigorously; this is especially true when there are more potential at-fault parties. To avoid paying high damages, these parties will fight to shift blame.
Large companies often have in-house legal teams dedicated to defending against personal injury suits on a routine basis. Insurance companies will also strive to shift blame away from their respective insureds.
Ultimately, these four factors mean that commercial vehicle accidents are generally much more complex and difficult than other case types. Depending on the case, plaintiffs in Phoenix may face a swim upstream. To succeed in these cases, it is essential to engage an experienced personal injury lawyer.
legal highlights in commercial vehicle accidents
The previous section explored some key factual and strategic characteristics of commercial vehicle accidents. This section will explore some key legal concepts that are likely to come into play in your commercial vehicle accident case.
What is Negligence?
Negligence is by far the most common cause of action brought in personal injury cases, including in commercial vehicle accidents. It is a theoretically straightforward concept that can be flexibly applied to a wide range of cases. To successfully argue negligence, plaintiffs must prove four elements:
1. Duty. Defendant owed plaintiff a duty to use reasonable care.
2. Breach. Defendant breached their duty.
3. Harm. Plaintiff suffered a harm.
4. Causation. Defendant’s breach of duty caused plaintiff’s harm.
This concept of fulfilling our reasonable duty toward others is particularly intuitive in contexts involving roadways. When operating vehicles, we all owe each other a legal duty to minimize risk of injury to others. Failure to do so may amount to a breach of duty to use reasonable care.
The existence of a duty may be conceptually measured by comparing (1) the burden of taking a safety precaution, (2) the probability of injury caused by failure to take the precaution, and (3) the gravity of the potential injury. For example, the burden of using turn signals is very low; comparatively, failure to signal has a high risk of injury. Indeed, an accident caused by failure to signal could foreseeably result in someone’s death. Therefore, the duty to use reasonable care on roadways includes a duty to use your turn signal.
Note, this analysis is often highly contextual. For example, the risk and magnitude of injury is even higher when an 18-wheeler driver fails to signal. Similarly, failure to signal—by any vehicle regardless of size—is much more dangerous on a busy highway than on a country road.
In Arizona, this contextual emphasis is also reflected in the doctrine of comparative negligence, which is also a straightforward concept. According to the governing statute, it simply means that damages that are awarded shall be reduced in proportion to the relative degree of the fault of the plaintiff. In other words, if the plaintiff was partially at fault, say 30% at fault, in an accident in which her damages are found to be $100,000, then her recoverable damages are reduced to $70,000. In Arizona, even if the plaintiff was 99% at fault, they may still recover 1% of their damages.
Further, in Arizona, the issue of comparative negligence “is in all cases a question of fact and shall at all times be left to the jury.” This means that patterns of behavior are not automatically equated to predetermined degrees of negligence. Instead, plaintiffs and defendants must argue to the jury on a case-by-case basis why they think their actions are, respectively, more or less culpable; this kind of argumentation before a jury requires skilled oral advocacy by a personal injury lawyer.
Finally, it is worth emphasizing that some actions are considered automatically negligent. The Supreme Court of Arizona has made it clear that “a breach of a statute intended as a safety regulation…is negligence per se.” Brannigan v. Raybuck, 136 Ariz. 513 (Ariz. 1983). This is particularly relevant in commercial vehicle contexts because commercial drivers and vehicles are subject to many state and federal safety regulations. A violation of these statutes may amount to negligence per se, which may in turn spare plaintiffs from having to prove all four elements of traditional negligence.
Whether arguing pure negligence, comparative negligence, or negligence per se, our commercial vehicle accident lawyers in Phoenix are ready to handle your case. Call Zinda Law Group today for a free consultation with an injury lawyer near you.
What is Vicarious Liability?
The concept of vicarious liability is invoked much less frequently than negligence, but it is often a pivotal issue in commercial vehicle accident cases. It essentially allows one party to be held liable for the wrongful actions of another. In particular, the doctrine of respondeat superior, a specialized subset of vicarious liability, allows an employer to be held liable for the negligence of their employees; this concept can become all important in cases where a negligent actor cannot afford to pay the damages resulting from an accident and, therefore, injured plaintiffs are forced to seek compensation elsewhere.
Who is Liable: Employees or Their Employers?
In determining an employer’s vicarious liability, courts typically consider the supervisor’s “right of control” and whether the negligent acts occurred in the “course and scope” of employment. The Supreme Court of Arizona summarized as follows:
The doctrine of respondeat superior generally holds an employer vicariously liable for the negligent work-related actions of its employees only if the employee is acting ‘within the scope of employment’ when the accident occurs. To determine the course and scope of employment, Arizona courts have long considered the extent to which the employee was subject to the employer’s control, as evidenced in the 2012 case, Engler v. Gulf Interstate Eng’g, Inc.
Case Illustration No. 1
In the Engler case, a negligent driver worked for a consulting company; he lived in Houston and flew each week to San Diego for work, where he rented a car and drove to his work site. The company reimbursed business expenses, including the cost of his lodging, rental cars, and meals. One night after work, he returned to his hotel at approximately 7:30 p.m. and left the hotel shortly afterward in the rental car to go to a restaurant; on the way back after dinner, the driver made an improper left turn and hit a motorcyclist who sustained serious injuries.
The motorcyclist sued both the driver and his company, alleging vicarious liability. Had the accident occurred during work hours, the rented vehicle would likely have counted as a “commercial vehicle.” However, the court held that the driver “was on his own time, was not subject to his employer’s control, and was not serving his employer’s purposes in traveling from the restaurant during his off hours.” Accordingly, the employer was not vicariously liable.
Employees vs. Independent Contractors
The driver’s employee status was undisputed in the Engler case; however, employers can only be held vicariously liable for the negligence of their employees and not for that of independent contractors. Therefore, where possible, employers litigate vigorously to prove that their negligent agents are employees and not contractors.
The legal and factual inquiry into this question can become complex very quickly. In another case, Santiago v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., the Supreme Court of Arizona explained that when determining whether an employer-employee relationship exists, the fact finder (judge or jury) must evaluate a number of criteria. These factors include:
1. The extent of control exercised by the master over details of the work and the degree of supervision
2. The distinct nature of the worker’s business
3. Specialization or skilled occupation
4. Materials and place of work
5. Duration of employment
6. Method of payment
7. Relationship of work done to the regular business of the employer
8. Belief of the parties
Importantly, the Court emphasized that “reasonable minds may disagree on the nature of the employment relationship.” The result is that plaintiffs and defendants must argue to the jury on a case-by-case basis why they think an actor is an employee or contractor. This kind of argumentation before a jury requires the attention of a knowledgeable and skilled personal injury attorney.
Case Illustration No. 2
In Santiago, a driver was delivering the Sunday edition of the Arizona Republic when he collided with a motorcycle driven by the plaintiff. The Supreme Court exhaustively analyzed the facts to determine whether the driver was an employee or contractor; for example, the driver had a six-month contract with Phoenix Newspapers, Inc. (PNI), to deliver the papers; with notice, either party could terminate the agreement prior to six months without cause. PNI was also free to breach the agreement if it ceased publishing the paper, defined in the contract as “excusable non-compliance;” additionally, the contract required the driver to allow a PNI employee to accompany him on his route “for the purposes of verifying distribution, subscriber service, or regular newspaper business.”
Ultimately, the Supreme Court determined that, all things considered, the driver was an independent contractor. Accordingly, PNI was not vicariously liable, and the motorcyclist could not recover damages from the company.
There exists one notable exception to the rule that a party may not be vicariously liable for the negligence of their independent contractors; this exception comes into play when there exists a “non-delegable duty.” Generally, non-delegable duties are those that involve unusually high risk (for example, handling fireworks or transporting hazardous chemicals).
Citing previous cases, the Supreme Court of Arizona ruled in Wiggs v. City of Phoenix that an employer who delegates performance of a special duty to an independent contractor who becomes negligent, “the employer will remain liable for any resulting injury to the protected class of persons, as if the negligence had been his own.” Put more simply, certain duties of an employer are so important, he may not escape liability merely by delegating performance of them to others.
Case Illustration No. 3
In the Wiggs case, the plaintiff’s daughter was hit and killed by an automobile while crossing a City of Phoenix street at dusk. The plaintiff brought a wrongful death action against the City, alleging improper maintenance of the streetlight. The City named Arizona Public Service (APS), an independent contractor, as a non-party at fault; APS was obligated to operate and maintain the streetlight pursuant to a contract between the City and APS.
On these facts, the Supreme Court emphatically explained that the City’s non-delegable duty was to maintain its highways in a reasonably safe condition. The duty could not be passed on to an independent contractor. However, the jury instructions provided earlier by the district court failed to make this clear to the jury; accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the district court’s opinion in favor of the plaintiff.
As these case illustrations show, establishing fault in a commercial vehicle accident can become factually and legally complex very quickly. Victims of these accidents are highly advised to speak with an injury attorney as soon as possible. The Phoenix commercial vehicle accident lawyers at Zinda Law Group are a call away; call today for a free consultation with an injury lawyer near you.
Our Phoenix commercial vehicle accident lawyers can help
Auto accident victims are often at a loss when it comes to securing compensation for their injuries; this is especially true in commercial vehicle accidents. Sadly, victims in these cases are often intimidated and persuaded to settle early on by more powerful, adverse parties. At Zinda Law Group, we believe that no personal injury victim should embark on the path toward maximum compensation without excellent legal representation, and our Phoenix injury lawyers are proud to provide that representation.
If you or a loved one was injured by a commercial vehicle in or near Phoenix, call Zinda Law Group at (800) 863-5312 for a 100% free case evaluation with our accident lawyers in Phoenix. Our clients pay nothing unless we win their case. That is our No Win, No Fee Guarantee. Tell us about your case, and we will tell you how we can help.
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