Thursday, July 21, 2011

Preserving Evidence In An Ohio Truck Accident--And The Most Important Thing To Do After An Accident

When it comes to semi or large truck accident cases, The Rolling Stones were wrong. Time is not on your side. As the clock ticks on your truck collision claim, here's what you need to know.

There is a little secret known to some (but not all) attorneys who routinely handle trucking accident cases in Ohio or any other state for that matter. This gem packs a powerful punch, and is an absolute must do for any attorney who represents truck crash victims. Properly done, it can set the table for cementing a solid liability case against a negligent truck driver and his or her employer. It can even be crucial in exposing a trucking company to a claim for punitive damages.

It is a "spoliation letter." A spoliation letter is a detailed letter sent to the proper entities that demands that a truckload (pardon the pun) of information and documents be immediately preserved and not "spoliated" (legalese for destroyed) in the event of possible future litigation against the trucking company.

Why is a spoliation letter so important? A thumbnail sketch of the anatomy of a trucking accident and lawsuit will shed some light. Reduced to its essence, any trucking accident involves a relationship between 3 crucial elements: the driver, the truck, and the trucking company.

There are a myriad of possibilities that cause a truck accident. Was it driver error? Was the truck overloaded or the cargo not properly secured? Was the driver fatigued or over his federally mandated hours of service driving requirements? Did improper maintenance contribute to the crash? Was the truck properly inspected at the necessary intervals? Or, did the driver have no business being behind the wheel due to a poor accident history or a shoddy background check?

Trucking companies are required to keep detailed records on all these issues as mandated by The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSR) Regulations and, in Ohio, through the PUCO. But here's the rub: many of these records are subject to a retention period of as little as six months.

A thorough spoliation letter sent immediately after a trucking accident, which details a request for all these records, coupled a request to preserve them, is essential to avoid a lawsuit defense down the road of, "gee, we got rid of those records after _____ months in compliance with federal regulations."

Example: recently I represented a dock worker injured in a loading dock accident when the truck driver failed to set the brakes, and the truck drifted during loading. The driver had a standard "accident kit" (per his company's written policy) that included a disposable camera. A spoliation letter was immediately sent, which included a request that all accident photos be preserved. The trucking company denied liability, and a lawsuit was filed.

Sure enough, the trucking company denied that it had any photographs of the accident scene. One small problem: the driver was eventually located, and he claimed that not only did he take pictures, he turned them into the Safety Director (who denied all of this under oath).

Armed with this "photos--what photos?" defense, and our initial spoliation letter, we filed a motion to include a claim for punitive damages against the trucking company for "spoliation of evidence." There is ample law that allows a claim for punitive damages when a trucking company is on notice of possible litigation, and allegedly destroys or loses evidence. After the judge granted our motion, the case settled just before trial.

So here's the takeway: what's a surefire way for crucial evidence in your trucking accident injury case to be forever missing like the infamous Watergate tapes? Simply wait on insurance companies' promises to "treat you fairly" after an accident, eventually receive a crappy settlement offer, finally decide to call an attorney, and then let him or her tell you that crucial evidence is now missing due to a long lapse of time.

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