Truck Driver Accidents Using Alcohol or Drugs

Truck driver use of alcohol and/or drugs jeopardizes the public safety, placing at risk the lives and livelihoods of everyone with whom they share the road. And yet, it’s far too common. As Boston truck accident attorneys can explain, truck drivers can be held liable for truck accident injuries and deaths when the company had actual knowledge as defined in 49 CFR § 382.107.

Truckers live solitary lives, traversing endless miles of road with days blending into nights in these massive, difficult to operate vehicles. Many of them wrestle with boredom, loneliness and fatigue. A number turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. It’s a problem with which industry and government regulators are struggling to cope.

How Common is Truck Driver Substance Abuse?

Alcohol is known to be a leading cause of absenteeism and workplace injuries nationally. Truck drivers are at an especially high risk for numerous reasons, including:

  • Anxiety/depression
  • Social isolation
  • Long work hours
  • Shift work
  • Fatigue/inadequate rest and relaxation
  • Low job satisfaction

Roughly 20 percent of truck drivers report regularly engaging in “binge drinking.” According to an analysis published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, binge drinking been linked to the impairment of several executive cognitive functions in both the short- and long-term. Researchers found that when truckers engaged in binge drinking at least once monthly, it increased the risk of a truck accident ten-fold. Roughly 10 percent engaged in a pattern of “everyday drinking,” which is relevant because most truckers often drive for several back-to-back days at a time when hauling deliveries.

Even more concerning is that, according to the Occupational Health Surveillance, the problem is likely significantly underreported.

Marijuana is the most commonly used drug in Massachusetts. However, the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that cocaine and amphetamines are more frequently used by truckers because they can help them stay awake for long stretches of time. Cocaine and amphetamines can cause hallucinations, agitation, vertigo and alter one’s reaction time and perception. That study analyzed mostly self-reported drug use among truckers globally and found that, on average, roughly one-third of drivers admitted to using amphetamines.

Are Truck Drivers and Trucking Companies Automatically Liable When the Trucker Was Impaired?

Truck drivers and trucking companies are not automatically liable in a crash simply due to them being impaired. However, our Boston truck accident attorneys will tell you that impairment does make the case much easier to prove.

MGL Ch. 90 § 24 prohibits all drivers from operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. An individual is considered to be under the influence if their faculties are impaired to the extent they are no longer a safe driver and/or having a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent.

Commercial drivers, however, are held to a higher standard. The U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has established that a driver with a BAC over 0.04 percent is considered impaired. Truckers can be not only criminally prosecuted under state law for an OUI, but also may face sanctions under federal law against their commercial driver’s.

Some states follow the legal doctrine of negligence per se (or negligence as a matter of law) in civil cases when a defendant has violated a criminal law. In these states, the criminal conviction is enough to find a defendant negligent in a civil case. Massachusetts, however, considers a criminal conviction to be only evidence of negligence. The criminal conviction itself does not create a presumption of negligence. One still must prove that the injuries in question were proximately caused by the truck driver’s negligence, or failure to use reasonable care.

Impaired driving may certainly be considered a deviation from the reasonable standard. A truck driver convicted of speeding, drunk and in violation of federal Hours of Service rules following a serious crash may have a great deal of evidence stacked against them in the civil case – but they aren’t automatically negligent.

Depending on the weight of that evidence, the trucking carrier/employer may concede liability – but they can still fight you on damages. In other words, the carrier admits that the driver was negligent and that the negligence was a proximate cause of the crash/resulting injuries, but may dispute the level of compensation the injured person seeks.

“Actual Knowledge” Under Federal Safety Laws

Trucking carriers and/or employers can be held responsible for the driver’s actions even if they themselves weren’t aware of an issue and took all precautions to test the driver for impairment and to follow up on any reports that should have raised suspicion or concern. This is thanks to a form of vicarious liability known as respondeat superior, which is Latin for “let the master answer.”

In other words, if the truck driver was an employee, the employer can be found liable for injuries resulting from the negligence of that employee who was acting in the course and scope of employment.

These entities can also be found directly negligent if they breached some duty of care. One way to establish that in the case of a drunk truck driver is by presenting evidence the company had actual knowledge as defined in §382.107. That means the company had knowledge that a driver trucker had used or was using controlled substances based on:

  • Employer’s direct observation;
  • Information provided by a driver’s previous employer;
  • A traffic citation received by the employer for driving a commercial motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
  • An employee’s own admission.

Any of these can form the basis for a company’s reasonable suspicion that a driver is using drugs or abusing alcohol on-the-job and thus should be subject to more rigorous drug testing.

Other Defendants in a Drunk Trucker Lawsuit

Other potential defendants can include the licensed vendor who sold the trucker alcohol knowing the trucker was visibly impaired. This falls under the Massachusetts dram shop law.

Another possibility (albeit a rare one) could be state officials/departments. Suing the government can be more complicated than the average negligence lawsuit and would require evidence the employee was carrying out a ministerial rather than discretionary function. For example, in 2019, the Massachusetts chief of the Registry of Motor Vehicles resigned abruptly a month after the agency admitted it failed to suspend the license of a commercial truck driver following a DUI arrest. A month after the arrest, that same 23-year-old trucker reportedly killed seven motorcyclists on a highway in New Hampshire.

If you are injured in a Boston truck accident wherein the driver was impaired by alcohol or drugs, you should speak to a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible.

Contact Jeffrey Glassman Injury Lawyers today for a free and confidential consultation.

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