Truck Manufacturers: The Duty to Protect Non-Occupants who Collide with their Vehicles

Truck guards or underride devices lower the rear bumper of the truck to prevent cars from going underneath, crushing the car or tearing off its roof.  This one piece of safety equipment can be the key to preventing an underride.  Truck underride accidents are almost always fatal for occupants of the smaller vehicle.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) promulgated regulations for rear underride guards in 1996.  These standards set forth rear-impact guard requirements for trailers and semi-trailers manufactured on or after January 26, 1998, that had a gross weight of 10,000 pounds. These requirements were extended by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to all commercial vehicles in 1999.

Despite the existence of federal regulations on the subject, many trucks are not equipped with a guard and not all courts impose a duty on truck manufacturers to protect non-occupants who collide with their vehicles by installing these safety devices.  For example, in Mieher v. Brown, 54 Ill. 2d 539 (Ill. 1973), the plaintiff brought a wrongful death suit against the driver and manufacturer of a semi-trailer truck that the decedent rear-ended while turning off a highway. The plaintiff alleged that the manufacturer negligently designed the truck because it did not attach underride protection to the rear of it.  The Illinois Supreme Court, however, held that while such underride accidents may be “in a sense, foreseeable,” the failure to equip a vehicle with underride protection did not create an “unreasonable” danger or an unreasonable risk of injury.

Despite the ruling in Mieher, most courts have imposed a duty on truck manufactures to make their vehicles safe to collide with.  At least nine states  have allowed such causes of action against vehicle manufacturers.  These states include: Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Oregon and Texas.