Garbage Truck Accidents
Imagine you are sitting at a red light when an 18-wheeler garbage transfer truck turns at the intersection and flips over, dumping its entire load of stinking garbage on your car. That happened to the sister of a metro Atlanta judge. Fortunately, she was not badly hurt. Others are not so fortunate.
In Georgia, it can make a big difference whose garbage truck is involved in an accident. If a garbage truck is operated by a city or county government, there is sovereign immunity except to the extent that the governmental unit chooses to waive immunity by purchasing motor vehicle liability insurance. The State Tort Claims Act which applies to state government does not apply to local governments. If the city or county government did not waive immunity through buying liability insurance, there can be no recovery no matter how bad the conduct or how severe the injury.
If a garbage truck is operated by a private company, which is very common in Georgia, then it may be one of many subsidiaries of a large corporation with somewhat adequate insurance. They may not disclosure more than a minimal first layer of coverage in response to a pre-suit request for insurance information under Georgia law, but if one digs hard enough in discovery after filing suit, there may be multiple layers of insurance adding up to several million dollars. However, if the garbage hauler is truly a small business operating solely intrastate within Georgia, there could be as little as $100,000 insurance coverage.
In metro Atlanta, we see garbage truck ranging from a form of pickup truck to massive 18-wheelers.
- The smallest garbage trucks scoot around in neighborhoods collecting garbage from homes, then transferring it to large garbage compacting trucks.
- Rear loading garbage or recycling compacter trucks are quite large, and typically have working holding on the outside, jumping down to pick up refuse and toss bags into the compacter as the truck stops in front of homes and businesses.
- Front loading compacter trucks are equipped with automated forks on the front which the driver aligns with sleeves on a Dumpster at a large refuse collection locations, such as a business or apartment complex. The driver lifts the Dumpster using a joystick or a set of levers. The Dumpster then lifted over the truck, flipped upside down and emptied into the truck’s hopper where it is compacted.
- Garbage transfer trucks are 18-wheeler semi trucks used to haul large amounts of compacted refuse from a central collection point to a remote landfill which may be in a rural area hundred miles or more from the city.
Garbage truck accident cases have much in common with other trucking accident crashes, but there are factors that set them apart:
- Driver qualifications. Because of pay, status and working conditions that may not compare well with other professional truck driving jobs, it is common to find garbage truck drivers who are less qualified by training, experience and other factors than would be desirable. It is more common to hear of a garbage truck driver being intoxicated on the job than an over-the-road driver for a motor carrier. In one case we handled, the driver of a garbage transfer truck testified that he had quite because he couldn’t stand the smell, but went back when he was unable to find another truck driving job. Garbage truck drivers may be great guys you would enjoy hanging out with, but are willing to work for less in order to have regular hours and be home every night, but driver qualification is a factor to examine in these cases.
- Records retention, production and disposal. Because they are generally not subject to regulations that apply to interstate motor carriers on preservation of records, garbage truck operators may “lose” both paper and electronic records with virtual impunity if the injured party does not have an attorney on board taking prompt action to request preservation and production of those records. We had one case involving a garbage transfer truck in which they said, with a straight face, that the janitor in their office threw the box of requested records in the garbage.
- Backing accidents. Because garbage trucks have frequent stops and maneuver in tight places, there are risks of backing over a car or pedestrian. Most have backup alarms, but they don’t always work right.
- Mechanical conditions / brakes. It is fairly common to hear of garbage truck accidents due to mechanical issues such as failure of brakes, especially when a garbage collection truck is parked on a hill. Somehow these incidents seems to be more common in municipal garbage collection operations.
- Rollover. With a high center of gravity and hydraulic compacter often operating while the truck is in motion, garbage trucks are vulnerable to tipping over if the driver is not well trained in careful. Recently there was a fatal crash in which an Atlanta garbage truck driver was intoxicated, changed lanes too quickly at a freeway ramp, rolled over and killed an occupant of another vehicles.
- Sovereign immunity and pre-suit notice of claim requirements. If a garbage truck is operated by a city or county government in Georgia, it is essential to send a pre-suit (“ante litem”) notice prior to an early deadline rather than waiting for the two-year statute of limitation. If the garbage truck is operated by a municipal (city) government, it is necessary to present a claim in writing to the city government within 6 months, then wait at least 30 days before filing suit. If it is operated by a county government, the claim must be presented in writing to county commission within 12 months, and prior to filing suit. The claim must be sent in writing to the governing authority, not a claims adjuster.
If the city or county government did not purchase liability insurance to cover the garbage truck, it is protected by sovereign immunity and there can be no recovery unless the governmental unit voluntarily appropriates funds for the victim.
If a garbage truck were operated by a state government agency (if any, as they appear to use private contractors), then it would be necessary to present a pre-suit notice of claim in writing with specificity, to head of each state agency involved, and to Risk Management Division of Department of Administrative Services, within 12 months of the accident and not less than 90 days after presentation of pre-suit notice of claim.
Like any serious trucking accident case, it is important to act promptly to investigate and preserve evidence. If you wait until shortly before expiration of the statute of limitation, most of the evidence may be in the landfill.