When a trailer escapes from its tow vehicle, the owner or operator may be at fault and liable for all injuries and damaged property. There are three theories which courts use to hold owner/operators liable.
Generally speaking, the common-law principles of negligence are applied in determining the liability for damage or injury caused by the escape of a trailer from its towing vehicle. Owners and users of trailers have a duty to use reasonable care to prevent injury to others. This applies to both the equipment of the trailer and to the operation of the tow vehicle.
Some jurisdictions consider towing a trailer to be a dangerous activity requiring a higher standard of care. Higher standards of care may also be required by statute. For example, one court held towing a coal conveyer which became unhitched and struck a pedestrian was a dangerous activity which required a higher standard of care to prevent injury to others.
In addition to the duty, an injured party must also prove that the driver breached his duty and caused the injured party to suffer bodily injury or property damages in order to recover for negligence.
Negligence Per Se
Many states have statutes requiring that a trailer be adequately hitched, or requiring the use of safety devices, such as chains, to hold the trailer and towing vehicle together should the hitch break or become unfastened. The failure to use such devices may be seen as evidence of negligence per se. Negligence per se is an act which is intrinsically negligent because of the violation of a statute.
For example, a logging company was held liable for negligence per se when a logging trailer broke loose and rear ended a vehicle. The trailer was not secured with a safety chain or other means for keeping the trailer from breaking loose in violation of a statute.
Res Ipsa Loquitur
Res Ipsa Loquitur is Latin for "the thing speaks for itself." It is used when the harm would ordinarily not occur without someone being negligent. Courts have applied res ipsa loquitur to escaped trailer cases, reasoning that a trailer is unlikely to become unhitched unless it was improperly fastened or improperly hauled.
One court used res ipsa loquitur to find liability when a trailer carrying circus equipment became dislodged, crossed the highway, and ran head on into an oncoming car. A police officer examined the hitch immediately following the accident and found that part of it was missing but nothing was broken. A search along the highway did not turn up the missing part, and the court applied res ipsa loquitur because there was ample basis for the jury to conclude that the driver was negligent in his operation of the vehicles and that the circus had not properly maintained its tractor-trailer equipment.
Should I Consult An Attorney About Escaped Trailer Accidents?
If you have been injured by an escaped trailer, you may be able to recover damages for your injuries. A personal injury attorney can help explain the law and your rights to preserve your case and help you collect for your injuries.