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Feature

The Blame Game

The story so far


The story so far

Mark takes a load of steel rebar from Hamilton to Sudbury. It’s very heavy and he takes it slow, and that encourages drivers to take risks getting by him. After one particularly close call, he’s forced onto the shoulder.

Mark continues on, leaving Sudbury for Winnipeg. On curvy Hwy. 17, a minivan tries to make a dangerous pass in the oncoming lane. Mark tries to get out of the way but some quick turns of the wheel sent his trailer spinning, forcing his load to break free and spill into the ditch.

A crane comes to clean up the mess. The police arrive on the scene and Mark is given two tickets – one for careless driving, another for an unsecure load. When the clean-up crew is done, the leader hands Mark the bill for their service. Mark expected the steel company to pay, and they want him to pay, but who is to blame?

*

Mark stopped at the first truck stop he came upon so he could call up the steel company. He could have easily called while he drove and speak through his bluetooth connection, but he had a feeling he’d want to focus all of his attention on this phone call.

“Hello?”

“Hi, this is Mark Dalton calling.”

“Mark who?”

He just shook his head. “The guy who lost his load.”

“Ah, one moment please.”

The line went silent a moment, then the shipper picked up the phone.

“Yeah, I’ve got your bill for the crane,” Mark said.

“Our bill?”

“That’s right. The crane operator gave it to me.”

“That’s your bill.”

“You expect me to pay for this.”

“Yes I do. You’re the driver. It was your load.”

Mark had a feeling the company would take that position, but he wasn’t going to give up without a fight. “But your guys loaded the trailer. Your guys secured it.”

“You did a circle check, right?”

“Of course.”

“And everything was all right before you headed out, right?”

“It looked that way…”

“You inspected the load and you made the decision that everything was safe enough to take it on the road. That’s why it’s your bill.”

“But…”

“Once the trailer leaves our yard, the driver is responsible for the load. Even if that wasn’t our position, everyone knows that it’s the driver who’s ultimately responsible for his load.”

This time Mark paused and when he was sure he could proceed without getting cut off, he said, “Your guys loaded the truck and secured it with faulty equipment. Two of the straps were frayed right through.”

“Okay. Did you make a note of that after your circle check?”

“No,” Mark said, feeling the wind coming out of his sails. “The frayed bits were on top of the load. I didn’t see them until after.”

“Isn’t that convenient?”

Mark expected a bit of a fight, but not this kind of antagonism.

“Why would I lie about something like that?”

“To avoid paying the bill for the clean-up.”

“But you guys have to be at least partially to blame.”

A long silence, then, “Sue us if you want. We’re not paying for the crane.” And with that the shipper hung up. Mark was speechless. He’d expected some resistance, but not this… this was bullying. He considered leaving the loaded trailer right there in the truck stop, but that would only make matters worse. If he didn’t deliver, he’d never get paid for the load and they’d probably sue him for some sort of breach of contract. If he sued them, the process would take years and even if he won, it probably wouldn’t cover the money he’d spend on lawyers fees, never mind the time off work to appear in court.

He looked at the bill again. It was a big number, maybe big enough to make legal action worth his while. Maybe it was worth a try.

*

Mark hit the Internet via the truck stop’s WiFi. At first his Google search for lawyers who dealt with trucking accidents was like hitting a jackpot. Dozens and dozens of law firms welcomed, even specialized in trucking accidents. And there were plenty of sub-headings on the law firm websites that dealt with “Common causes and liability,” and “Defective truck equipment and improper load size.”

“Now we’re talking,” Mark said.

But as he read further, his stomach began to turn. Sure there were all kinds of lists that asked “Who is responsible?” and the answers ranged from the truck’s driver to the shipper or loader of the truck’s cargo, but each of these sites –every last one of them – was designed to attract people who had been injured or otherwise involved in an accident with a truck.

These lawyers were out to sue everyone from the driver to the shipper, from the company that made the truck’s tires to the guy who last worked on the truck’s brakes. Their job was to extract as much money as possible from the trucking industry on behalf of their clients. And judging by the number and variety of lawyers who did this kind of work, it had to be one hell of a profitable business.

Still, Mark thought it was worth giving one of these lawyers a call, just to see if they could help. He picked a lawyer whose office was nearby and gave him a call. After Mark explained what had happened, the man asked, “Was anyone hurt?”

“No.”

“Oh, I see,” the man said, doing nothing to hide his disappointment.

“I just want to sue the company for at least half the clean-up bill. That’s only fair, right.”

“Uh-huh.” The man didn’t seem all that interested in the idea of fair. After a sigh, he said, “I’d be happy to take the case for you. I require $5,000 up front as a retaine…”

Mark’s jaw dropped. That was almost as much as the clean-up bill.

“And once that’s used up I charge $300 per hour.”

At that rate, it wouldn’t take long to owe this lawyer double or triple the cost of the clean-up. It was probably cheaper and easier just to pay the bill.

“I’ll think about it,” Mark said, hanging up the phone.

*

After Mark delivered his load of steel in Winnipeg, he got back onto the road and headed straight for Hamilton.

“Bud, this is Mark Dalton,” he said, not allowing Bud to play any games with his name.

“What can I do for you?”

“I want you to get me another load of steel from that same mill.”

“What? I didn’t think you wanted to go back there.” A laugh. “They probably wouldn’t give you another load anyway.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah, pretty sure.”

“What if you give them another name? It’s a busy place with plenty of shippers. They’ve got drivers coming and going all day long.”

“And what name would you use?”

Mark’s mind was a blank. “John Smith,” he finally blurted.

“Oh, very original.”

“Okay, how about John G. Smith?”

“Wow,” Bud said. “I hardly recognize you anymore.”

“Just do it for me, will ya?”

“Okay,” Bud said. “It’s not like I’ll be sending any of my drivers there anymore anyway.”

*

Two days later Mark was back at the mill wearing a ball cap and a pair of big, dark sunglasses. He was picking up a load from a different area of the plant and shipper was a younger man, probably in his early thirties. As his trailer was being loaded, Mark decided to strike up a conversation with the shipper. “Hey, I heard you guys had a spill up north.”

“Yeah. Winnipeg run.”

“Losing one of these load is expensive, eh?”

“Yeah, for the driver.”

“Really,” Mark said. “You guys weren’t liable at all.”

He shook his head. “Nah.”

“Not even a little bit?”

He shook his head again. “Out of the yard, not our problem.”

It sounded like a mantra shippers for the company chanted in in their sleep. “That’s good to know,” Mark said. “Thanks.”

*

A short time later, Mark did a thorough circle check, but instead of tightening the straps securing the load, he undid every single strap on the trailer. Then, when everything was good and loose, Mark put Mother Load in gear and began driving in circles inside the yard.

Tighter and tighter until…

SPRANGSHH!

The entire load rolled off the trailer and spilled out across the yard.

Traffic in the yard ground to a halt. People began appearing in windows and doorframes. Without a glance at any of them, Mark calmly got out of Mother Load, disconnected the fifth wheel and drove out of the yard.

“Your yard,” he said at the top of his voice. “Your problem.”


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