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If you’re driving down the highway behind a truck and trailer hauling materials, and one of those materials comes loose and hits your car, is the driver liable for damages?

This was the question posed by Nichole N. Boggs in a recent car accident lawsuit filed in Kanawha Circuit Court. According to the “West Virginia Record,” Boggs was driving her 2007 Mazda M3 on Interstate 64 on November 10, 2009, when an unsecured mat and bucket flew out of the bed of the truck in front of her. When she tried to avoid a collision with the flying items, Boggs swerved and crashed into the concrete median. She “sustained serious and permanent injuries, including headaches and cervical pain.”

Boggs filed a lawsuit against the driver of the truck, Jason S. Jones, and the entity he worked for, the City of Nitro. Both parties have reached a settlement agreement.

Case Settled for Undisclosed Amount

Jones was driving a Ford F-350 truck as an employee of the City of Nitro on the day the accident happened. Allegedly, when he changed lanes in front of Boggs, the materials in his truck bed came loose and flew towards Boggs’ vehicle. Boggs claimed the materials were not properly secured in the truck bed as they should have been. She sought both compensatory and punitive damages.

On September 19, 2013, both parties came before the court and stated that all matters had been settled and compromised for an undisclosed amount. The case has now been dismissed.

Liability When There is Flying Debris

Data released in 2010 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, (NHTSA), found that out of about 5,419,000 crashes, 51,000 of them were the result of a vehicle hitting an object that came off another vehicle or hitting an object already along the road. A report in November 2012 by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) took a look at this data and reported that it’s not known exactly how many crashes involved non-commercial vehicles carrying unsecured loads.  It is difficult to determine whether the “road obstruction” was caused by human error, or if it involved “natural elements.”

This data has jumped since a 2004 report by AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety.  This report found that vehicle-related road debris (VRRD) is estimated to cause over 25,000 crashes per year, resulting in 81 to 90 fatalities. The AAA recommends that employees provide more education to fleet maintenance personnel and train commercial drivers to periodically inspect their vehicles and cargo. They also state that public education is needed on topics like load securement, reporting unsafe vehicles, and defensive driving when around trucks.

Individuals driving a truck and carrying a load are obligated to secure those items to ensure that they won’t be picked up by the wind or jostled off the bed while traveling. Always file a police report after such an accident, and take pictures of the damage if you can.

Any Type of Debris Can Be Deadly

A Washington state litter study reported that tires constitute the largest category of litter on interstate highways, at nearly 25 percent. Other types of debris may include metal and plastic automotive parts, wood products, and organic material like yard debris, stumps, firewood, branches, and prunings.

This type of debris can come from most any class of vehicle, including passenger vehicles when drivers fail to adequately secure excess cargo on the roof. Light, medium, and heavy-duty trucks can also cause problems when their cargo is stored with little protection or security. At high speeds, almost any type of debris can become deadly, especially if it lands on a congested highway.

The GAO, in its report on crashes involving unsecured loads, reported that drivers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia can be subject to fines for violations.  These fines can be anywhere from $10 to $5,000 and could even result in prison time.

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