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Fleet Liability for Add-On Equipment

July 2017, Work Truck - Feature

by Richard Alaniz

One way to reduce the liability of add-on equipment is to regularly review how equipment is used and whether it is needed. (Photo: Getty Images)
One way to reduce the liability of add-on equipment is to regularly review how equipment is used and whether it is needed. (Photo: Getty Images)

Statistics support the fact that driving a truck continues to be one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. Snowy conditions, rain, and long hours can combine to create a variety of hazards. While weather conditions cannot be controlled, companies and drivers often create other significant risks, which could be avoided.

Improper use and malfunctions of add-on equipment can and often do cause injuries that can easily be avoided. Companies can face negligent entrustment, negligence, workers’ compensation claims, and other liability when someone is injured by faulty or improper use of equipment.

Enforcing Equipment Procedures

Failure to follow established procedure is one of the most common ways in which liability is created. In Bush v. Mid-South Baking Co. LLC, a recent case before the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, a driver failed to follow the proper procedures in using the truck’s ramp, a common piece of add-on equipment.

Two drivers were attending the truck. One of the drivers was setting up traffic cones while the other driver made the delivery. As the driver placed one of the cones, a red Camaro hit the ramp, resulting in serious injuries to the passenger in the car.

The court upheld the lower court’s finding that the company was 25% liable for the accident while the driver of the Camaro was 75% liable. That 25% liability could have been avoided if the drivers had simply followed company protocol. The drivers failed to complete the process of placing the cones as required by company policy before beginning the actual delivery.

Dealing with Defective Equipment

Equipment that is known to be malfunctioning or failing to fix broken or damaged equipment is another common cause of liability. In Gregory v. Pearson, a worker was acting as a spotter at a landfill. Another employee drove a mobile trash compactor near the worker in violation of the landfill policies, which required a minimum 20-foot distance between mobile compactors and spotters.

The backup camera on the vehicle did not provide sufficient visibility to the driver. In fact, the defect from the camera had previously caused the mobile compactor to collide with other equipment.

While backing up, the driver ran over the spotter with the mobile compactor and drove the worker into a pile of trash. The spotter later died from the injuries. The administrator of the spotter’s estate filed a workers’ compensation claim against the employer, a temporary employment agency, and a negligence and wrongful death claim against the county that contracted with the agency.

This tragedy was preventable. A policy requiring the reporting of equipment malfunctions promptly and following procedure would have saved the spotter’s life and protected the county and agency from liability.
A great deal of risk and potential liability can result from improper use of add-on equipment or ignoring faulty add-on equipment. Employers put themselves and others at great risk when they fail to train their employees on the proper use of equipment. Failure to ensure that employees fully comply with equipment use policies will compound the liability risk.

Accidents in the Trucking Industry

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workers in the trucking industry experience the most fatalities of all occupations and account for 12% of employee deaths.

Truck drivers also have more nonfatal injuries than workers in any other occupation. Half of these injuries are serious strains and sprains most frequently caused by the loading and/or unloading of goods.

Employer Responsibilities

OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires employers “to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards.” While add-on equipment can often help promote a safe workplace environment, malfunctions and human error can easily transform these useful tools into hazards.

To avoid liability and attempt to provide a safe work environment, employers should consider:

  • Periodically reviewing the need for all add-on equipment. Employers, managers, and drivers must be aware of how add-on equipment should be used and any conditions under which the equipment is not considered safe to use. If management does not understand how or why a piece of equipment is safely used, then it cannot create effective policies and procedures regarding that equipment. 
  • Developing and/or updating policies concerning equipment use. All companies should have policies about the proper and improper use of add-on equipment. These policies should be regularly updated to ensure that they are applicable to the equipment that is actually in use. 
  • Creating a reporting system for faulty equipment. Employees should be able to clearly and promptly report that equipment is malfunctioning and how it is malfunctioning. Immediate reporting should be required. Likewise, prompt repair should be a priority for the shop staff or any outside vendor. 
  • Instruction on and proper use of add-on equipment. Having policies is pointless if they are not publicized or if they are ignored. Toleration of violations of these policies without correction virtually assures injuries and probably liability in any subsequent lawsuits. Regularly update employees on policies for use of equipment and clearly explain any changes in procedure. Document the fact that employees have been trained. Discipline employees that do not follow procedure. Employees should not modify equipment as any modifications may invalidate manufacturers’ warranties and release them from liability for injuries. 

These simple steps to assure that all drivers are knowledgeable about add-on equipment use and the danger of improper use or ignoring faulty equipment can help companies avoid the risk of legal liability. 

About the Author

Richard D. Alaniz is a senior partner at Alaniz Schraeder Linker Farris Mayes, L.L.P., a national labor and employment firm based in Houston. Questions about this article, or requests to subscribe to receive Rick’s monthly articles, can be addressed to (281) 833-2200 or [email protected]

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