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Product Malfunction or Operator Negligence?

Accident investigators say the cause of the May 29, 2013 crash in New York’s Courtland County that resulted in the death of seven people was mechanical failure. The crash occurred when a trailer containing crushed cars separated from the truck that was hauling it and careened across two lanes of a rural road, slamming into a minivan traveling in the opposite direction and killing three adults and four children.

The Courtland County sheriff’s office has traced the cause of the car accident to a malfunctioning coupler called a “fifth wheel,” designed to lock the trailer securely to the truck. Mechanical failure is very rare in such automatic locking device setups, according to an analysis of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration data, and has only occurred in 0.10 percent of all fatal crashes between 2007 and 2011. Nevertheless, it does occur.

There are several other possible scenarios the sheriff’s department is continuing to investigate. The fifth wheel may have been so old and improperly maintained that its fit with the trailer’s pin was no longer tight. Overloading may also have added additional weight to the trailer beyond the fifth wheel’s capacity to work properly. Finally, there are questions about why the truck driver had not secured the trailer with additional breakaway chains.

Liability in this instance may be difficult to determine. If the fifth wheel broke, an immediate assumption might be that the accident was caused by the product manufacturer. Trucks have been recalled in the past due to problems with the trailer hitch fifth wheel assembly. If the driver put more weight in the trailer than the fifth wheel could sustain, this also constitutes operating the equipment outside the product manufacturer’s guidelines.

In cases like this, victims and their families may suffer not only from loss of their loved ones but also financial hardship brought on by the negligence of another. Although liability may be difficult to determine, a personal injury lawyer may be able to help families fight for compensation.

Source: Stamford Advocate, “Equipment failure caused NY crash that killed 7”, John Kekis, May 31, 2013

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