Can severe burns cause a wrongful death on the highway? Are trucking companies required to protect their drivers and workers from burn injuries while they are on the job? Burns are some of the most dangerous injuries truck drivers can suffer. Not only can they cause serious, debilitating injuries, they can lead to infections, organ failure, and other trauma that can lead to a wrongful death. From 2008-2010, commercial truck fires accounted for 6.9% of all traffic related fires. On average, there are 31 vehicle fires in the US every hour which means that there are approximately 51 commercial truck fires every day. 17% of all fatal vehicle fires involve commercial trucks. These fires are caused by everything from failure of components, overheating engines, and the ignition of flammable cargo.
Thermal burns are the most well-known types of burn injuries truck drivers can experience. In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recorded 14,120 non-fatal thermal burn injuries. Thermal burns are caused by exposure to open flame. Hot objects such as engines and brake systems are the most common type of burn injury accounting for 44% of admissions to burn centers, and steam which is responsible for 33% of admissions. Other common causes of burn injuries are chemical burns which account for 3% of all admissions to burn centers.
Truck drivers can suffer burns when an engine overheats or an electrical short occurs and ignites fuel, oil, and solvents within the engine compartment. Fires can erupt when brake systems or refrigeration systems overheat and ignite tires, insulation, etc. Drivers can become injured while trying to extinguish these fires. The risk of suffering either a burn injury or inhaling toxic fumes increases if the fire spreads to the cargo compartment. Of all commercial vehicle fires, approximately 50% are caused by mechanical failures or malfunctions, while roughly 25% are caused by electrical faults or failures. Between 3-5% are caused by collisions or rollovers, and around 5% are caused by exposure to external fire sources such as a burning car, fuel pump, etc.
While diesel fuel is less flammable than gasoline, that doesn't meant that it won't ignite. Diesel fuel has a flash point of between 52 and 96 degrees Celsius. As little as a 1% concentration of diesel fumes can lead to combustion. If the fuel is under pressure this can lead to a rapid explosion and greatly increase the risk of serious injuries or a wrongful death.
In order to protect drivers from suffering burn injuries, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requires all commercial vehicles to carry fire extinguishers that are suitable for extinguishing fuel and any type of cargo the vehicle is licensed to carry. Further, every commercial vehicle that transports either flammable or explosive material is required to prominently display the appropriate placards. In the event of a collision, these placards notify firefighters of the contents of the vehicle so that they can properly extinguish a blaze if it erupts. Drivers are also required to complete the required fire safety training for the operation of the vehicle they drive and the safe handling of the cargo they carry.
In a recent wrongful death case that I worked on I had a semi backing on the turnpike and stopped in the dark. The driver failed to put cones, warning triangles, flares or other warning devices out. The driver saw the stopped semi and trailer at the last minute, clipped the left rear and then struck the median, immediately igniting the tractor-trailer and burning the driver alive. I filed a survival claim for conscious pain and suffering and a wrongful death claim. We had to use autopsy results to have a medical expert testify that the poor driver suffered burning slowly to death. This was an extremely labor intensive case that was settled positively in a seven figure level that helps the family out for the rest of their life.
Brad Pistotnik Law represents the survivors of burn injury victims in Kansas City, Great Bend, Satanta, McPherson, Dodge City, Great Bend, Colby, Hays, Goodland, Ulysses, Satanta, Hutchinson, Wichita, Garden City, Liberal, Independence, and other cities in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, and Illinois that have suffered wrongful deaths with conscious pain and suffering. Survivors of burn related fatality victims may file workers' compensation claims for survivors benefits and potentially pursue wrongful death claims against equipment manufacturers and other third parties including trucking companies whose negligence in design, construction, maintenance, or fleet vehicle operation contributed to the injuries the victim sustained.
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