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Liability in "Freak Accidents"

Although it has no stated definition in law, the term "freak accident" is often used to describe an accident that is caused by a sequence of unlikely events occurring at roughly the same time. These accidents are sometimes called "perfect storm" accidents.

In today's post, the commercial truck accident lawyer at The Doan Law Firm reviews the known facts of one such accident. He then discusses how the law determines liability when dealing with an accident that may, at first glance, appear to have unpreventable.

The Accident Details

The following summary was compiled from local news media sources.

On March 5th 2019, three students from Tulane University were traveling east on Interstate-10 when they pulled into a rest area just north of Gautier MS. As they were returning to their car, a pair of wheels separated from the left rear of tractor-tanker belonging to Dana Transport that was traveling west. The wheels crossed the highway median and entered the rest area via its eastbound return lane before striking the students' vehicle. According to local news sources, 21-year-old Margaret Mauer died at the scene but her companions suffered only minor injuries.

The Investigation

A preliminary investigation by the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) determined that the probable cause for the wheels becoming detached was the absence of a simple, inexpensive, metal part called a "locking washer." In the commercial trucking industry, locking washers are used to keep a vehicle's wheels attached.

We have been unable to confirm what led the MDOT to conclude a locking washer was responsible for this accident. However, based on our extensive experience with representing victims of commercial truck accidents, we feel that one of three possible explanations will eventually be accepted as the root cause of this tragedy. In increasing order of probability, we suspect:

  1. The locking washer contained some manufacturing defect that caused it to fail under the normal "wear and tear" of long distance trucking. Or,
  2. The locking washer was not defective but was not installed properly after routine maintenance on the wheel / tire unit or following a tire change. Or,
  3. The locking washer was not reinstalled after routine maintenance / tire change.

Let's take a look at each of these possibilities.

1: The locking washer contained some manufacturing defect that caused it to fail under the normal "wear and tear" of long distance trucking.

Although it isn't generally well known, any metal will "stretch" or "distort" in response to outside forces such as heat, vibration, chemical reaction, or friction. Such changes occur at a microscopic level but, over time, could eventually weaken the metal to the point that it could suddenly snap.

We consider this to unlikely because any major or "obvious" defect would have been detected by the manufacturer's quality control testing before the entire "lot" or "production run" left the factory. Also, if defective locking washers started to show up in unusual numbers at maintenance shops, it would probably have resulted in a federal product recall as soon as a problem was suspected.

2: The locking washer was not defective but was not installed properly after routine maintenance / inspection of the wheel or following a tire change.

Although more likely than the "defect" possibility mentioned above, we reject this explanation on the grounds that 1) the driver did not sense that there may have been a problem before the wheels separated and 2) as noted in the next paragraph, there was no debris found inside the wheel assembly that would indicate a gradual failure.

3: The locking washer was not reinstalled after routine maintenance / tire change.

Based on reports in the local news media, particularly a story published in the March 14th online edition of the New Orleans Advocate under the title "Missing $3 part blamed for runaway big-rig tires that killed Tulane senior Meg Maurer," we believe this to be the most likely cause of the "freak accident" that took Meg's life. We base our conclusion on the observation that when the MDOT investigators "unpacked" the outer hub of the wheel assembly after the accident, only a single ring was found rather than the two rings that are normally present. This, along with abnormal wear patterns that are present in photographs published with the Advocate's story.

Contacting a commercial trucking accident injury lawyer

In the case presented above, we believe that liability will fall squarely on the shoulders of the last person to have serviced the wheel assembly and that person's employer. From a legal standpoint, this is because:

  1. A competent mechanic would have known that the wheel assembly required two locking washer rings.
  2. Since the rings are inexpensive, it is unlikely that only one ring was deliberately installed as a "cost-cutting" measure.
  3. Failure to install the second ring establishes the mechanic to have been negligent while performing his / her job.
  4. The mechanic's employer is also liable under the principle of respondent superior, which holds that an employer is liable for the actions of an employee.

Although there are other issues that would have to be considered as well, we believe that the above facts are sufficient to prove negligence in a wrongful death lawsuit.

If, you or a family, member were injured in an accident involving a commercial "long haul" truck, we invite you to contact our commercial trucking accident injury lawyer here at The Doan Law Firm, a national personal injury law firm with offices located throughout country, to arrange a free review of your accident case and a discussion of the legal options that may be available to you.

At our firm, your case review and first consultation with our commercial trucking accident injury lawyer is always free and does not require you to hire us as your legal counsel. Should you decide to file a lawsuit to insure that you receive all the compensation that is due, we are willing to assume full responsibility for all aspects of preparing your case for trial in exchange for a percentage of the settlement that we will win for you.

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Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer

  1. After an accident, the responsible party's insurance company may try to reduce the claim amount. Commonly, insurance adjusters are trained to get information from the injured to assist in reducing the claim. Though some insurers are less guilty of this practice than others, it is important to realize that insurance companies are profit-oriented corporations and reducing claims results in increased profits for shareholders. This can create a situation for the injured in which they are offered a settlement that does not truly reflect the damages suffered. If you accept this settlement, you lose the ability to get more money should your injuries require further medical treatments. It is critical that victims get legal assistance in any personal injury case, and The Doan Law Firm is prepared to fight relentlessly for your rights.
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