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Damage Control

Being involved in a truck accident can be a harrowing experience, but not knowing what to do in the crucial moments immediately following that accident can make a bad event much worse -and much more c...

Being involved in a truck accident can be a harrowing experience, but not knowing what to do in the crucial moments immediately following that accident can make a bad event much worse -and much more costly.

Towing and recovery costs, as well as lawsuit awards, are skyrocketing in Canada and the US, so it’s more important than ever for fleets to develop a claims response protocol and train their drivers on how to follow it, Luis Costa, claims man- ager with Markel Insurance Company of Canada, said at the recent Let’s Talk seminar on profitability.

As part of any claims response protocol, fleets should provide drivers with the phone number of their insurer so they can contact the insurance company immediately following the accident, Costa said. Rob Andreatta, also a claims manager with Markel, agreed, citing an example where a trucking company’s tardiness in reporting an accident resulted in charges of careless driving, making a false claim and criminal negligence being brought against a truck driver who was not at fault for the accident.

“Had we had a chance to get out to the scene, we’d be in a better position to defend the claim,” Andreatta recalled.

Developing a claims response protocol is crucial in light of the escalating costs of recoveries and also personal injury claim awards. Costa said towing and recovery operations now routinely run $40,000-$50,000 in the event of a rollover and storage fees can be as much as $500 per day for a tractortrailer unit. However, he also said the indirect costs associated with an accident, such as a damaged reputation, stranded cargo and injuries to drivers, can quickly run the tab even higher.

“When you add them all up, they amount to a significant number of dollars,” he pointed out. And then there are the lawsuits.

“The cost of injury claims is definitely on the rise in Canada and the US,” said Andreatta. “We’ve seen $10-$15 million awards.”

In Ontario, there’s a $300,000 cap on “general damages.” However, Andreatta pointed out, “There’s no caps on other awards (such as providing long-term care for victims), and that’s what’s driving costs up.”

Lawyers, motivated by contingency fees of 33-50%, are quick to pursue damages when a truck’s been involved in an accident. Making matters worse, Ontario has “loss transfer” legislation which means the trucking company involved in an accident with a car will have to cover all the motorist’s legal fees even if the trucker was only partially to blame.

“That situation only applies with a truck striking a car. To me, there’s an inequity there,” said Andreatta.

So with accident-related expenses spiraling out of control, how can a fleet minimize the costs of a wreck? Much of it has to do with how the fleet reacts immediately following the accident, the panel agreed.

Costa said the driver must first take control of the accident scene. When it’s safe to do so, get out of the truck and check on the well-being of anyone else who was involved in the crash.

One of the biggest complaints crash victims voice when pursuing damages is: “Your truck driver didn’t even get out of the vehicle to see if I was okay.”

“That’s one of their biggest beefs,” Andreatta said.

Once its clear that everyone is okay, the driver should record the actual events that took place. It’s not a good time to scurry back to the truck to update the logbook or to cover up the logo on the side of the truck, Costa pointed out.

“You’re dealing with perceptions,” he said, adding victims may think there’s a cover-up in the works.

If a driver has been given a ticket, it’s important to discuss it with your insurer before paying it. In the US especially, paying the ticket is an admission of guilt and that evidence is admissible in court.

“We’ve had to admit liability on the lawsuit down the road (because a driver paid a ticket),” Andreatta said.

When interviewed by the police, the driver should stick to what he knows happened and avoid making any inferences. They should also avoid cleaning up the scene of debris – especially in serious accidents where a reconstruction may be required.

“At an accident scene, debris are like pieces of a puzzle. They may be sweeping away evidence that could be used to help their case,”Costa said.

Cameras can be a good tool when recording the events that transpired – if they’re used properly.

“They also present inherent dangers,” Andreatta warned. “Don’t take pictures of dead bodies, injured people or speckles of blood. They will inflame a jury and the jury can’t write enough zeroes on a cheque to punish the trucking company.”

Naturally, being involved in an accident can be an unnerving experience, and it’s not fair to expect a driver to remember what to do. For its part, the fleet should take responsibility for developing a written action plan and then educating drivers about it. Creating a checklist or a list of dos and don’ts and keeping them in every tractor is a good starting point. Emergency contact numbers that will be answered 24/7 should also be included.

Once a plan is developed, fleets must communicate the protocol to all staff, including drivers and dispatchers. The phone list should be updated regularly and “mock events” should be conducted to ensure the plan is working, Costa advised.

“Let everyone know it’s a mock event and debrief afterwards,” he suggested.

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