Logging Truck Accidents
Some of the most frightening and grisly large truck accidents we see in rural Georgia involve logging trucks that tend to be poorly maintained, operated by minimally qualified drivers, seldom in compliance with minimal state regulations on lighting and visibility, dangerously overloaded and inadequately insured.
Because most log trucks operate within a single state, hauling timber and pulpwood between the forest and a paper mill, chipboard mill or sawmill, they are typically regulated only by the Georgia Forest Product Trucking Rules, which apparently were written by folks in that industry to avoid any meaningful safety regulation. The loading and visibility requirements under Georgia Forest Product Trucking Rules are substantially inferior to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
Law enforcement officers are seldom trained in even those minimal Georgia Forest Product Trucking Rules, so most who investigate log truck accidents do not know what to look for and include in their reports. In areas of the state where most logging operations are conducted, it is common for those law enforcement officers who have had little or no training on Forest Product Trucking Safety Rules to have friends or relatives employed in the logging industry, so viewing facts through the lens of their own experience, training (or lack thereof) and environment, they naturally tend to be biased in favor of the log truck operators. The result is often a cursory police report that blames the victim who is unable to tell his story because he is either catastrophically injured or dead.
If doing business as intrastate carriers, log truck companies are only required to carry $100,000 in liability insurance. (Until very recently, a log truck operating invisibly in the dark of night on Georgia highways could legally operate with only $25,000 liability insurance.) However, many have $1 million coverage due to contractual requirements of paper or board manufacturers to which they haul wood. But even if they have insurance, many are small operators who lack sophistication about insurance matters, and therefore fail to report claims to their insurance companies as timely as required, setting themselves up for coverage defenses by the insurers.
Some common safety hazards that may lead to catastrophic logging truck accidents include:
- Driver qualifications. Because log truck driver jobs often pay less than many other truck driving jobs, log trucks are often operated by drivers who have a Commercial Driver’s License but are otherwise minimally qualified in terms of training, experience, safety records, etc. If loggers attend logging safety courses offered by the state, they get exposure to a lot of information about logging operations in the woods but little or nothing about log truck safety on the roads. Log truck drivers are expressly exempted from the following driver qualification requirements that apply under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations: age (can be 18 rather than 21), literacy, listing of traffic violations, road test, checking of background in other truck driving jobs and limitation on driving for multiple employers at same time. That means that log truck driving jobs can be a refuge for the least qualified and least safe drivers. Some are great guys with whom you might enjoy sharing a bar-b-q and beverage, but who just prefer to work close to home for less pay. But no matter how likeable they may be, many have never been adequately trained on safety issues peculiar to safe log truck operations.
- Maintenance. Log trucks and trailers are often old equipment with high mileage before being converted to logging uses, and regularly operated in rough conditions off road in the woods where they are loaded. As a result, they are often in marginal mechanical condition. Visibility is often impeded because lights and reflective tape required by law for visibility are obscured by mud, dirt and dust.
- Poor lighting. Log trucks are supposed to have flashing amber lights on the end of an extended load plainly visible from 500 feet in all directions, and tail lights and side reflectors also plainly visible from 500 feet. Load lamps are often have poor light capacity and shoddy wiring, and all lights and reflectors are often obscured by mud and dirt. We have handled cases in which eyewitnesses were emphatic that nothing about a log truck on a dark highway was visible until they were “right on it.” Following log trucks down the highway in daylight, trying to determine how far the load lamps were visible, we have gotten within 50 feet before any light from the “flashing” load lamp could be seen.
- Overloading. It is common for log trucks making early morning deliveries to paper and board mills in the dark to be substantially overloaded. While there are weight limits, they often exceed those limits, knowing enforcement is virtually nonexistent in predawn darkness on the country roads where they operate. In addition, the Georgia Forest Product Trucking Rules do not set a specific limit on the length of loads. The result is that log trucks in most of rural Georgia operate with loads nearly dragging the ground 18 to 20 feet off the end of a trailer. The dangers of loads swinging out or creating dark obstacles across roadways are obvious, but in the absence of specific length limits no one with the state of law enforcement does anything about it.
- Poor routing. It is not unusual for a log truck with a load hanging 20 feet off the rear of the trailer to be routed so that it has to make a u-turn in the middle of a highway near a hillcrest in predawn darkness, making a black fence across the highway in the dark. Apparently they just don’t think that through before taking the same route they would in a personal pickup truck. That is a recipe for decapitation or impaling of anyone who comes over a hill at the wrong time.
- Hidden insurance. In interstate trucking, at least the first layer of insurance coverage on a trucking company is disclosed on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website. But with intrastate log trucks, there is no such public disclosure. In addition, while the insurer of a log truck is identified on a police report, there is no such identification of parties or insurance with regard to whoever overloaded a trailer, and the degree of compliance with Georgia law on pre-suit disclosure of liability insurance often leaves much to be desired.
In the event of a catastrophic log truck crash in Georgia, it is essential to act promptly to investigate, sue the log truck operator, push aggressively for discovery of every possible party involved in loading and hauling the logs, and force prompt disclosure of all insurance policies lest a party who bears fault but is frightfully ignorant fail to report the suit to his insurance company, and then immediately notify the insurance company if the defendants has failed to do so. But if the defendant did not notify the insurance company immediately when served with lawsuit, it may be too late when you ultimately discover the policy.
In handling a catastrophic log truck accident case, one must beware of the lack of business sophistication of a lot of people loading and hauling logs. We have seen a logger who negligently overloaded logs on a homemade log trainer answer a lawsuit pro se (without a lawyer), fail to produce a copy of his insurance policy, fail to show up the first three times we send notice for his deposition. Then, when a retired State Trooper served him a subpoena to come to a deposition in the Grand Jury room of the local courthouse, he showed up with a great insurance policy on which he had forfeited coverage by failing to report the case to the insurance company. But he wasn’t all that concerned because he had filed for bankruptcy, which he also hadn’t bothered to disclose.
One must also be aware of venue problems. Most log truck operators are located in – and any suit against them must be filed in -- small, rural counties where every jurors sees overloaded log trucks several times a day and may have friends and relatives in the logging business. Getting an adequate verdict under those circumstances is tough. Occasionally there is a way to get a different venue, but usually you are stuck in the defendant’s home county.
Finally, in light of the grossly inadequate insurance on too many Georgia log trucks, venue problems and the pro-logger bias of too many law enforcement whose brothers-in-law are loggers, we have learned from long and sometimes bitter experience that one must sometimes remember the words of Kenny Rogers’ song, “The Gambler” – “You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, Know when to walk away, know when to run.” When there is a chance, stand and fight, but be realistic when all realistic options for collection of money are exhausted.