Legal Responsibility in U-Haul Truck Wrecks

| Oct 1, 2020 | Car Accidents, Injuries

A fully-loaded U-Haul truck could weigh as much as 26,000 pounds. Normally, people must have commercial drivers’ licenses to operate such massive vehicles. But at a U-Haul outlet near you, they are available to almost anyone with a valid credit card.

If such vehicles cause crashes, the amount of force is almost unbelievable, especially at highway speeds. No matter how advanced a vehicle’s safety system is, it cannot possibly provide adequate protection in these situations.

Fortunately, a Lexington personal injury attorney can obtain compensation for these injuries. This compensation gives victims the resources they need to deal with their serious injuries. However, to obtain fair compensation, an attorney must overcome an obscure amendment to an equally-obscure federal transportation bill.

The Graves Amendment

In the early 2000s, several juries ordered Enterprise and some other car rental companies to pay significant damages in vehicle collision claims. One was a fatal fireball collision in Connecticut which involved an Enterprise rental. The company was legally responsible for the wreck because of the negligent entrustment doctrine. This rule holds vehicle owners, including commercial owners, liable for damages if they allow incompetent operators to drive their vehicles.

In response, Enterprise and other companies threatened to cease operations in several states which had favorable negligent entrustment laws.

So, in response to that threat, Rep. Sam Graves introduced the amendment which bears his name. The Graves Amendment, which was a policy rider to an omnibus transportation bill, protects vehicle rental companies from liability lawsuits.

However, like most policy riders, there is almost no legislative history in support of the Graves Amendment. Furthermore, the amendment itself, which is less than a page long, does not define some key terms. 

So, attorneys have considerable room to exploit some two very large loopholes embedded in the Graves Amendment. The promised immunity only applies in limited situations.

Trade or Business

Immunity only applies if the vehicle owner or agent was in the trade or business of renting motor vehicles. As mentioned, the Graves Amendment does not define this key phrase. So, attorneys must look elsewhere for its definition.

The Uniform Commercial Code is widely used in legal disputes. The UCC does not define “trade or business.” But it does define “merchant,” which is a similar term. According to Section Two, a merchant is a person or entity who:

  • Deals in Items of a Particular Kind: This phrase refers to the type of business. A hardware store is a hardware store, even if it sells food and beverages as well as tools. Somewhat similarly, most U-Haul outlets are basically moving supply companies. They might have a few trucks available, but that does not change the nature of the business.
  • Has Specialized Knowledge: Other than how to operate the vehicle, most employees at most U-Haul; outlets have no specialized knowledge about the vehicles available. They could not tell you the engine’s torque or the air conditioner’s BTU capacity,

If the outlet was not in the trade or business of vehicle rental, Graves Amendment immunity from negligent entrustment legal actions does not apply. That means the company, and not the driver, is financially responsible for damages. That’s good news for victims. Most U-Haul operators have little or no insurance, and most personal automobile policies do not cover such losses.

Not Otherwise Negligent

Essentially, negligence is a lack of ordinary care. In commercial disputes, the industry standard usually establishes the standard of care. So, if an employee’s or owner’s conduct fell below the standard of care, the U-Haul outlet was arguably negligent. In that case, Graves Amendment immunity does not apply.

So, what is the standard of care when it comes to verifying drivers’ licenses during vehicle rental transactions? In the early 2000s, when lawmakers approved the Graves Amendment, visual inspection was the only way to verify drivers’ licenses. Now, technology permits things like driving record searches. Arguably, it is the standard of care to at least verify that the license is valid and not safety-suspended.

Many courts follow a three-tiered approach in this area. If the person’s license was legally invalid, the U-Haul operator was negligent as a matter of law. If the person’s driving record included a prior safety suspension, the operator was probably negligent. If the person had a bad driving record, that’s some evidence of negligence.

Damages in a commercial negligent entrustment claim usually include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

Compensation is available following a U-Haul crash, but these claims are legally complex. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in Lexington, contact the Goode Law Office, PLLC. Home, virtual, and hospital visits are available.