The presence of any large truck or commercial vehicle poses a major risk to others on the road. However, garbage trucks present a particularly serious hazard to motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Most motorists are accustomed to driving around trucks on the highway and even on major city roads. However, encountering a trash truck on a smaller city or suburban street can often create a dangerous situation.
In the course of collecting garbage, trash trucks often move differently than motorists would expect other types of trucks to move—stopping frequently and with little notice or driving on the shoulder on wide roads and in the middle of the street on narrow roads. This unpredictable behavior can make it challenging for drivers to know how to react.
Garbage truck accidents are more common than most people believe. According to the most recent data compiled by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, there were more than 2,400 trash truck accidents across the country in 2017. These accidents claimed more than 107 lives and seriously injured another 1,400 people. Given these numbers, garbage trucks are responsible for almost 2.5 percent of all traffic-related fatalities.
In some cases, those involved in a trash truck accident can bring a personal injury lawsuit against the truck driver and the waste management company. However, certain complications can arise when bringing these claims.
Waste Management Sovereign Immunity
Across the United States, waste management services are often provided by the city or county. In a typical arrangement, the city or county will form a special entity within the government that is responsible for picking up residents’ trash and transporting it to the landfill. However, this is not always the case—some cities and counties contract waste management services out to a private business. Depending on the state’s sovereign immunity laws, this can make a big difference in a garbage truck accident victim’s ability to recover money damages for their injuries.
In most states, governments enjoy some form of immunity from personal injury cases. Government immunity is a legal doctrine that may prevent a government entity from being held liable for an accident victim’s injuries. State government immunity rules vary, but typically these laws make it much more difficult for those injured by a negligent government employee to bring a case against the government.
Most states take one of three approaches to government immunity. Some states limit the type of cases that can be filed against the government. Other states will allow injury victims to bring a case but place a cap on the amount of damages they can recover. And some states use a hybrid of the two approaches, limiting both the type of cases that can be brought and the amount of available damages. Thus, understanding a state’s government immunity rules is crucial to evaluating the strength of an accident victim’s case and the overall likelihood of success.
Proving Driver Negligence
In the vast majority of personal injury cases, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant was legally negligent. To do so, the plaintiff must show that the defendant violated a duty of care that was owed to the accident victim and that the defendant’s breach of the duty resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries. However, when it comes to trash truck accidents, two major issues frequently arise.
First, garbage truck drivers may be exempt from following certain traffic laws. Often, garbage trucks have to pull up close to the curb to collect trash—something they cannot always accomplish if they have to follow normal traffic rules. To allow garbage truck drivers to do their jobs effectively, some cities and states exempt these drivers from certain traffic laws.
For example, a trash truck driver may legally be permitted to do any of the following:
- Straddle the center median;
- Drive or stop in a bike lane;
- Drive the wrong way down a one-way street; or
- Drive on the wrong side of the street.
Of course, most drivers rely on the fact that their fellow motorists will follow all traffic laws. Thus, a driver may not be expecting a garbage truck to make what the motorist would think is an illegal traffic maneuver. This can catch drivers off guard, increasing the chances of an accident.
These unusual exceptions to regular traffic laws can impact an accident victim’s ability to prove that the trash truck driver was negligent. For example, if the truck driver is allowed to drive the wrong way down a one-way street, doing so will not likely be seen as a breach of a duty that was owed to another motorist, pedestrian, or bicyclist—even if the victim didn’t know the maneuver was legal.
The second fault-related issue that often comes up in trash truck accidents is comparative fault or contributory negligence. Every state has laws that will either decrease or eliminate a negligent motorist’s liability if the victim shared responsibility in causing the accident. Governments and waste management companies frequently argue that others should be on notice that a garbage truck is present and should take the necessary precautions. If the judge or jury agrees, this can greatly reduce an accident victim’s total recovery amount or, in the case of those states that rely on a contributory fault model, completely preclude their recovery.
Always Have a Personal Injury Attorney Evaluate a Garbage Truck Accident Case
Garbage truck accidents frequently raise legal issues that are not present in other types of accident cases. These issues can prevent a plaintiff from securing financial compensation or result in a significant decrease in the amount of compensation available to them. Those involved in a trash truck accident should consider working with a truck accident attorney who can answer their questions and help them determine if they have a case.