I was at the beach last week when I read about 8 year old Cameron Mcilwain losing his life because of debris flying off of a poorly maintained tractor trailer. As a parent of two small children, I cannot imagine what demons his mother is tortured by now given the apparent randomness of the tragedy…but it is not random. This is one of those things that we try so hard as trial lawyers to explain to jurors. When it comes to car crashes and tragedies like this, we know there are very few true accidents without blame. The transmission debris that killed Cameron started falling towards him months before. It started with CW transport’s sloppy maintenance history as documented by the DOT. “Federal safety officials said the company has a worse maintenance record than 94.6 percent of the companies that are of similar size. Its trucks have been cited for loose or missing wheel fasteners, missing or defective axle parts and for failing to secure brake hoses or tubing against mechanical damage” was the judgment of CBS affiliate WGCL.
There are mandatory annual inspections and monthly inspections by the trucking company and then there are mandatory pre and post trip inspections by the driver himself. Tractor trailers are complex 80,000 lb rolling warehouses and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations are there to make sure that minimum safety requirements are met.
As I read the reports on the incident that took Cameron’s life and grievously wounded his mother, I am reminded of depositions we took two weeks ago in a case of our own. In that crash a car transporter driver claimed that his brakes totally failed and he plowed through traffic and struck our client knocking him into the air and fracturing his leg. When the DOT examined the brakes on the truck after the crash, they found that 6 of the 10 brakes were out of adjustment. What that means is the braking power of the truck was degraded by more than 50%. In other words, it cannot stop.
We deposed the tractor trailer driver who claimed that he examined the brake slack adjusters and yet he admitted that he did not actually measure how far out of adjustment they were. The measurements are set by Federal and State Law. When we deposed the owner of the company, he shrugged and admitted he did not know any of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and “just figured he had the right paperwork.” In actuality, the company bought an old car carrier and conducted no inspections of the brake system or any other system. The put a rolling freight train on the highway with no brakes and when it hurt someone their response was, sorry.
What is the solution to this epidemic problem? I suspect it will take bringing trucking insurance companies into the inspection fold and requiring that they teach the companies they insure to follow the regulations. Until that day comes, we will continue to lose good kids like Cameron.