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What Happens When a Trucking Company Violates FMCSA Rules?

What is the FMCSA?

You probably have never heard about the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, known as the FMCSA. The FMCSA is a federal agency responsible for overseeing commercial motor vehicles, generally large trucks and buses, in the United States. It is charged with reducing crashes, as well as injuries and fatalities, caused by accidents involving commercial vehicles.

Even with an agency responsible for overseeing the industry, there are, of course, accidents involving commercial trucks and buses. And some of those accidents are caused by those who fail to–or choose not to–follow FMCSA regulations. Below, our truck accident lawyers explain briefly what happens when a trucking company violates federal motor carrier safety rules.

What are FMCSA Rules? Where Do they Come From?

Truck Accident Lawyer Dan Munley examines the wreckage of a truck accident

The FMCSA is a federal agency housed within the Department of Transportation. Because it is a federal agency, the FMCSA gets its power to regulate from the United States Congress. Its mission is to make the road safer for the public and the trucking industry. That means that the main priority of FMCSA is to work to avoid truck accidents.

In furtherance of that mission, the FMCSA creates regulations. Regulations are essentially rules that have the force of federal law. FMCSA regulations are meant to set minimum standards that govern the trucking industry. That means that if a trucking company violates a regulation created by the FMCSA, the federal government can take action. This includes issuing fines for FMCSA violations and requiring regulated parties to take certain actions.

An FMCSA regulation applies broadly to most commercial vehicles that cross state lines. The FMCSA also regulates all the players in the trucking industry. That means FMCSA regulations apply to truck drivers, hiring managers, trainers, supervisors, managers, and dispatchers. Trucking companies can themselves be liable for violating federal motor carrier safety standards.

There are many FMCSA regulations and they exhaustively cover all aspects of the trucking industry. For example, FMCSA regulations control how often commercial vehicles must receive an inspection and certain types of maintenance, the number of hours a truck driver may drive, the qualifications truck drivers must have to operate a commercial vehicle, and what a trucking company must do after a truck accident. Basically, if there is any way to make the highway less dangerous, the FMCSA likely regulates that space to lower the risk to truck drivers and the public.

For example:

  • Drive Time Regulations: these regulations set limits on the amount of time a driver may drive in a given day or in a seven-day period. They also mandate breaks after driving more than 8 consecutive hours. The regulations further require that a driver get a certain amount of sleep. The rules allow truck drivers certain flexibilities when they encounter “adverse driving conditions” that cause delays that push a driver over their mandated drive time limit. This means that if something delays a driver, like road construction, the driver is allowed to “make up” two additional hours under the regulations. However, drivers must carefully follow the regulation, because exceeding the make up time could still result in penalties.
  • Drug and Alcohol Testing: The FMCSA requires trucking companies to test their drivers to ensure they are not under the influence of drugs and alcohol on the job.
  • Inspections: The FMCSA sets certain maintenance requirements for commercial vehicles, and driving a vehicle that doesn’t meet those requirements will result in penalties. The FMCSA can require an inspection, and if that happens, an inspection must occur within 24 hours.

While many of these regulations govern truck drivers, truck drivers are not the only ones responsible for complying. Trucking companies must be diligent. This requires careful logging, active communication between a trucking company and its drivers, and strict policy enforcement by a trucking company. The company itself can be liable for FMCSA violations for failing to do so.

The FMCSA’s duty is actually much broader than just passing regulations and enforcing them. The FMCSA also inspects vehicles and will respond to trucking accidents to investigate their cause and determine whether a violation occurred. The FMCSA also offers numerous different databases and registries meant to give drivers, trucking companies, and the public access to information and services meant to reduce the risk of collisions. Importantly, while state laws technically govern the licensing of trucking companies and the commercial driver’s license of truck drivers, FMCSA regulations apply to set minimum standards that the states must follow.

What Does the FMCSA Do if A Regulation Is Violated?

The FMCSA is itself empowered to bring enforcement action if it determines a trucking company has violated an FMCSA regulation. Usually, FMCSA enforcement actions are triggered following a compliance review, roadside inspection, a terminal audit, or after a complaint was submitted.

The FMCSA typically issues something called a “Notice of Claim.” The Notice of Claim starts the formal agency enforcement process. Agency enforcement actions typically are resolved by a trucking company paying certain financial penalties and signing a settlement agreement, by which the trucking company agrees to take certain actions to become compliant with FMCSA regulations. However, it is possible for a trucking company to “default” on a Notice of Claim, which can result in a Final Agency Order, requiring certain actions be taken.

Do FMCSA Regulations Have Anything to Do With Liability in Court?

scranton truck accident lawyer dan munley standing in the courtroom

If you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering how these regulations come into play if you have been injured by the negligence of a trucking company or truck driver.

While the FMCSA generally has a duty to regulate the trucking industry to avoid commercial truck accidents, they still happen. And while the FMCSA may investigate any collision to determine whether any of its regulations were violated, any penalties assessed by the FMCSA are not meant to compensate you for any damages you suffered.

But that does not mean that the FMCSA and its regulations are irrelevant if you’ve been injured by a negligent truck driver. Generally speaking, when you bring a personal injury suit against a trucking company or a truck driver, you are doing so under state law, specifically the law of negligence. To understand how FMCSA regulations come into play during a private lawsuit, it is important to know a little bit about the type of legal claim you’re trying to prove.

What is a Negligence Claim?

“Negligence” is a legal term. In Pennsylvania, and indeed throughout the United States, the party that injured you may have been negligent if that person owed you a duty, breached that duty, that breach caused your injury and you suffered damages.

Duty of Care

A “duty of care” simply means that the at-fault party had a legal responsibility to protect you from harm. Trucking accidents implicate many different kinds of duties. Pennsylvania law recognizes many types of duties. Drivers, including transport or semi truck drivers, have a legal responsibility to keep alert and drive safely while on the road. Trucking companies also may have a duty to properly maintain the vehicles they put on the road to keep them working in a safe way.

The at-fault party breached their duty of care:

Someone typically “breaches” a duty of care when they fail to act reasonably, or as a reasonable person would, in a given situation.  For example, a driver who gets behind the wheel after having a few drinks certainly breaches a duty of care. Or, distracted drivers, such as a driver who is texting, playing with the radio, or otherwise not paying attention, will often breach the duty they owe to keep other drivers—and pedestrians—safe.

The unreasonable actions of the at-fault party caused an injury:

Under the law, the unreasonable actions of the party who injured you must have caused your injury. In some cases, the cause of an injury can be unclear. For example, when accident injuries interact with preexisting injuries or when multiple smaller vehicles were involved in a crash caused by, for example, a commercial truck. That’s okay. An experienced accident lawyer can help you decide whether you or a loved one were injured by negligence.

Finally, as a result of the unreasonable actions of the at-fault party, there were damages:

Damages under the law are designed to make you whole, and for that reason, an experienced personal injury attorney can help you claim many different types of damages in a personal injury case. Damages often refer to any losses you may suffer because of the unreasonable conduct of the at-fault truck driver or trucking company.

FMCA Regulations Can Show Negligence Per Se

Negligence per se is simply a legal way of proving that a person breached a duty of care. The theory goes that because an individual acted in a way that was contrary to a law that was designed to protect the public, here, a federal regulation, they automatically breached the duty of care if the violation harmed someone.

Said differently, if a truck driver failed to follow a specific regulation, and that failure caused your accident, you can prove, as a matter of law, that the truck driver’s actions were negligent, or that they breached the duty of care by performing them.

For example, the FMCSA requires that truck drivers follow carefully structured driving limits. If a truck driver has been on the road for longer than the time limit proscribed by the regulations and falls asleep, causing an accident, an experienced attorney can use the regulation to establish a breach of the duty of care.

That may sound complicated, and that’s why it is important that you connect with an injury attorney with experience working with FMSCA regulations. An attorney can screen your case to determine whether a regulation could make proving your case easier. FMCSA regulations are powerful tools that you and your attorney can use to ensure the at-fault party is held responsible.

Does That Mean that If A Regulation Was Not Violated, I Don’t Have a Case?

No, it most definitely does not. It’s important to know that FMCSA regulations establish the bare minimum standard of care. In many situations, the true industry standard, the one that matters for a state law negligence claim, is above and beyond what is proscribed by federal regulations.

Indeed, at times, even states adopt requirements that are more demanding than the federal government. Furthermore, some trucking companies have operating policies that have stricter requirements. If an internal policy or state law was violated, it is possible to make a negligence claim.

Furthermore, an experienced attorney will know that expert evidence is often necessary in a truck accident case. An expert can weave together the various state and federal regulations, as well as industry standards and policies, both formal and informal, to establish the standard of care in a specific trucking case.

Bottom line, just because a truck driver or trucking company didn’t violate FMCSA regulations when they caused your accident, it doesn’t mean that they’re off the hook. Truck drivers and trucking companies have a duty to protect other vehicles on the road from harm caused by their driving. Under the law, at minimum, that means that a trucking company and truck driver have to act reasonably.

If you were hurt by a truck driver, a personal injury attorney will work with you to determine whether your situation could indicate that someone acted unreasonably, with or without an FMCSA regulation. It’s always best to ask an attorney if you are in doubt.

Our Best Advice? Give Our Truck Accident Lawyer A Call

At the end of the day, Munley Law is here to help. Our compassionate and experienced lawyers have been doing this work for decades. You aren’t just another truck accident to us; we are here to listen to what happened, explain your rights, and give you your options for moving forward.

Call us today, or fill out the form on this website. Contacting us is completely free and won’t obligate you to do anything. What’s more, you won’t pay us unless (and until) we win, and any payment we get comes out of the money we recover for you. Nothing comes out of your pocket, ever.

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