You’ve Been in a Tractor-Trailer Collision. Who is at Fault?

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You've Been in a Tractor-Trailer Collision Article

Tractor-trailer crashes differ from motor vehicle collisions because there are many companies and individuals involved in the transportation and logistics industry, meaning various people or entities may be at fault for causing a catastrophic or fatal truck accident. As Virginia truck accident attorneys, we have noticed that that there are a wide variety of potential defendants in truck crash cases, including, but not limited to: (1) truck drivers, (2) motor carriers, (3) intermodal equipment providers, (4) shippers, (5) brokers, and (6) manufacturers.

Generally, federal and Virginia law only require motor carriers to carry $750,000 in liability insurance, except greater limits are required for motor carriers hauling certain kinds of freight, such as hazardous materials.[1] When a tractor-trailer is involved in an accident, catastrophic injuries and death often result. Each year in the United States, approximately 5,000 to 6,000 people die in truck crashes, and approximately 155,000 people are injured in truck crashes.[2] For this reason, $750,000 is commonly insufficient to fully compensate the victim of a truck crash. Therefore, a thorough investigation of your tractor-trailer collision is imperative because failing to identify all potential defendants may significantly limit your recovery in a Virginia personal injury or wrongful death case.

1. Truck Drivers

Truck drivers are regularly at fault for causing tractor-trailer collisions. Most often, truck drivers are responsible because of some sort of negligent operation of the commercial motor vehicle, such as making an improper lane change, failing to maintain proper control, failing to keep a proper lookout, failing to yield the right of way, traveling too fast under the circumstances, etc. However, truck drivers can also be responsible for other types of negligence, like failing to inspect and maintain the tractor-trailer. Federal law requires truck drivers operating in interstate commerce to complete daily driver inspection reports and “[b]e satisfied that the motor vehicle is in safe operating condition” prior to operating any commercial motor vehicle.[3]

Although the truck driver’s negligence may be the primary cause of a truck accident, other companies or individuals may also bear responsibility. A plaintiff who only sues the truck driver will likely face a limited recovery, especially if there is insufficient or inapplicable insurance coverage and the truck driver does not have any significant personal assets. Thus, it is rare for the truck driver to be the only defendant in a truck accident case.

2. Motor Carriers

A motor carrier is the “person providing motor vehicle transportation for compensation,” which is usually a trucking company.[4] There are two types of claims that can be alleged against motor carriers in truck crash cases: (1) direct liability claims, and (2) vicarious liability claims. Direct liability claims are those attributable to the motor carrier’s misconduct. For example, a motor carrier may negligently hire or retain a truck driver who has repeated traffic convictions for causing crashes due to his or her reckless driving. On the other hand, vicarious liability claims are those attributable to an employee or agent’s misconduct. For example, a plaintiff can sue a motor carrier for its truck driver’s negligence that occurred in the course and scope of the truck driver’s employment or agency relationship with the motor carrier.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (“FMCSRs”) prescribe many rules and obligations for motor carriers operating in interstate commerce.[5] If the motor carrier violates the FMCSRs and such violation causes a tractor-trailer crash resulting in personal injuries or death, then the motor carrier may be held liable for negligence per se under Virginia law.[6] Therefore, it is important to retain a truck accident attorney that is intimately familiar with the FMCSRs.

3. Intermodal Equipment Providers

In the trucking industry, trucking companies often agree to share their equipment through interchange agreements. Intermodal equipment is “trailing equipment that is used in the intermodal transportation of containers over public highways in interstate commerce, including trailers and chassis.”[7] An intermodal equipment provider is “any person that interchanges equipment with a motor carrier pursuant to a written interchange agreement or has contractual responsibility for the maintenance of the intermodal equipment.”[8]

The FMCSRs require intermodal equipment providers operating in interstate commerce to “systematically inspect, repair, and maintain” their equipment and keep parts and accessories “in a safe and proper operating condition at all times.”[9] If an intermodal equipment provider fails to properly maintain its equipment, provides such defective equipment to a trucking company, and the defective equipment causes a crash, then the intermodal equipment provider may be liable for negligently entrusting its equipment to the trucking company. For example, an intermodal equipment provider supplying a trailer with improperly maintained brakes may be liable for negligently entrusting the trailer to another.[10]

4. Shippers

In some instances, shippers are responsible for truck crashes. The typical situation is where the shipper negligently loads or secures the trailer’s freight. If the freight is improperly loaded or secured, then the load may shift or even fall off, which can lead to a catastrophic truck collision.

Mechanic Working on Tractor Trailer

5. Brokers

In the trucking industry, shippers regularly hire freight brokers, who act as middle men and are involved in the business of selecting motor carriers to transport the freight. Some courts have recognized that a broker may be liable under Virginia law for negligently hiring an incompetent motor carrier.[11] This is because readily available information, like statistics published on the United States Department of Transportation’s website, may show that it was well known that the selected motor carrier frequently committed safety violations or hired incompetent drivers. A broker may also be liable if it exercised so much control over the negligent truck driver that it formed a principal-agent relationship. There is currently a disagreement among federal circuit courts about whether certain broker claims are preempted (barred) by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (F4A).[12]

6. Manufacturers

Truck and trailer manufacturers may also be responsible for a trucking collision if a part on the truck or trailer was defective and such defect caused the collision. For example, the truck or trailer manufacturer may have negligently manufactured or negligently designed a key component, like the brakes.

Given the wide variety of entities and individuals that may be at fault in a Virginia truck accident case, it is crucial to hire an attorney that specifically focuses on tractor-trailer cases. Gentry Locke has a team of Virginia tractor-trailer accident attorneys with a breadth of knowledge and experience. Contact one of our truck crash lawyers today for a consultation.

[1] See 49 C.F.R. § 387.9; Va. Code Ann. § 46.2-2143.1(B).
[2] See Large Trucks, NSC Injury Facts (2024),
[3] 49 C.F.R. § 396.11; 49 C.F.R. § 396.13.
[4] 49 U.S.C. § 13102(4); see also 49 C.F.R. § 390.5.
[5] See 49 C.F.R. § 390.3(a).
[6] See McKeown v. Rahim, 446 F. Supp. 3d 69, 76-77 (W.D. Va. 2020).
[7] 49 C.F.R. § 390.5.
[8] Id.
[9] 49 C.F.R. § 396.3(a); see also 49 C.F.R. § 390.40.
[10] See Hack v. Nester, 241 Va. 499, 504 (1990) (“An owner is negligent if he entrusts his vehicle to another person when the owner knows, or reasonably should know that the vehicle’s condition makes its normal operation unsafe.”); Darnell v. Lloyd, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49811, at *10-14 (E.D. Va. 2016) (denying motion to dismiss negligent entrustment claim).
[11] See Jones v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., 558 F. Supp. 2d 630, 642 (W.D. Va. 2008) (“The court agrees that the Virginia Supreme Court would extend the cause of action of negligent hiring of an independent contractor to this situation involving the selection of a carrier by a freight broker.”).
[12] See Ashley W. Winsky & Jeffrey P. Miller, Transportation Freight Brokers: Argue F4A Preemption but Take Additional Precautions (Nov. 2023),

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These articles are provided for general informational purposes only and are marketing publications of Gentry Locke. They do not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. You are urged to consult your own lawyer concerning your situation and specific legal questions you may have.