October 2004 | Commentary | Risks and Rewards

Steering Clear of Roadside Risk

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Q: I recently made arrangements with a trucker to transport a co-loaded trailer from the Midwest to the East Coast. The trailer jackknifed on the highway and overturned, causing an accident with another car. I'm worried because I received a letter holding me responsible for any injury and property claims that may result from this accident. How can this be, when I had nothing to do with the accident?

A: On any given day, 500,000 to 750,000 chassis, and perhaps as many trailers, roll along our nation's highways.

Many operators lease a significant amount through chassis and trailer pools. Many lease directly from leasing companies, and still others own their own vehicles. It is not uncommon for a trucker to pull a unit belonging to a shipper, a steamship line, or other intermediary, to transport goods that are owned by other parties.

This creates issues regarding responsibility for the proper use of these units—and determining who will be at fault when an accident occurs.

These concerns are certainly not unfounded. The devastating effects of accidents involving chassis and trailers on public roads are well documented, and states have established standards to address these concerns.

Maintenance standards for containers and trailers are stringent, and a party will be liable for negligently entrusting a unit to another without ensuring that it is in proper working order.

In New York, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia, any party connected with a road shipment can be vicariously liable for a highway accident, even when they have no actual involvement in driving the vehicle.

In one case, a New York court awarded $5 million to a young professional seriously injured when a tractor-trailer ran a red light and broadsided his car.

The young man sought to recover against the tractor's operator, its owner, the owner of the container, the lessor of the chassis, and the steamship line that leased the unit.

Though no relationship existed between the steamship line and the truck driver, the court held the line partially responsible for the judgment based on the state's existing vicarious liability law.

Certainly, if a shipper or its agent loads a unit in a way that renders it dangerous to operate, the shipper will be held liable if an accident results from that condition.

A case in Puerto Rico illustrates this perfectly: Cargo interests improperly loaded a container, causing it to be severely top-heavy. When the tractor driver attempted to make a turn within the terminal area, the container toppled over, causing damage to a nearby vehicle. Cargo interests were called upon to answer for that claim.

The lesson is clear. If you are involved in the loading, leasing, or arrangement for transport of chassis or trailers, notify your general liability insurer of this activity. Ask specifically whether you will be covered for roadside accidents.

If you own or lease chassis or trailers, you will need a specific insurance cover to protect your roadside liabilities.

If you have any doubts, address your concerns to your attorney and your insurance agent.

Do you have a question about cargo insurance or liability? Ask the expert. Send your question to Dan Negron at Dan.negron@thomasmiller.com

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