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The Five Worst Semi-Truck Crashes in History

Railroad cars delivered most goods to most warehouses before 1900. That began changing in 1903 when Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson and his mechanic drove a Winston Automobile from New York to California in just over two months. Because of the lack of good roads, the pair took various ropes and pulleys with them, so they could haul their automobile around obstacles. The stunt worked wonders for Alexander Winton, who invented the semi-truck in Cleveland in 1898 and sold the first manufactured semi-truck in 1899. By 1914, Winton and other automakers had sold over 100,000 trucks that could haul up to 28,000 pounds.

Today’s trucks are much bigger. They easily haul over 80,000 pounds. Additionally, because of their powerful engines, they do not need ropes or pulleys to bypass obstacles. This immense size and speed create an unbelievable amount of force in a large truck wreck. Even more disturbingly, federal regulators have watered down several key safety laws since 2020. These changes may have benefited some people, but they put millions more motorists at risk.

The injuries in a large truck crash include serious burns, severe internal bleeding, and other injuries that are often fatal. When tragedy strikes your family, a Hamilton personal injury lawyer works hard to obtain the compensation you need and deserve. These crashes are usually very complex, and not only because of the severity of the injuries. Frequently. An out-of-state holding company owns the truck that caused the wreck.

Handcross Bus Crash, 1906

On July 12, a bus taking volunteer firefighters and their families on a much-deserved relaxing day trip crashed, killing 10 people and injuring 26 others. Investigators determined that when the driver applied the brakes to slow the bus, the gearbox shattered, causing the brakes to fail and sending the bus careening out of control.

Noted poet Edward Phillips wrote a lengthy poem chronicling the “Handcross Hill Motor Bus Disaster.” Part of that poem reads as follows:

Their hearts were light as children’s; they were full of life and fun;
They reveled in their pleasure ‘neath the July morning sun;
They chafed pedestrians on the way while swiftly they shot by;
They’d planned a day’s enjoyment, and to have it they did try.

Everything went smoothly ‘till they came to Handcross Hill,
The driver seemed a careful man, possessed of needful skill;
Yet, just as they passed the brow, the car gained fast in speed,
And soon the pace it rushed long was terrible indeed.

The passengers were terrified, the bus sped madly on,
The driver did his utmost, but alas! control had gone;
He tried to steer it down the hill; its pace he could not check;
But soon it dashed against a tree – became a total wreck.

These lines capture not only the serious injuries in these wrecks but also some of the emotional distress these victims endure. One moment, everything is wonderful. The next moment, everything is horrible.

Driver error causes about 98% of semi-truck and other large vehicle wrecks in Ohio. But a defective product, namely the gearbox, probably caused this wreck. The major types of product defects are:

  • Design Defect: Modern diesel trucks may last over 400,000 miles. The gearbox and other components must be designed to withstand excessive wear and tear. Unfortunately, mostly to save money, many designs basically use reinforced pickup truck parts.
  • Manufacturing Defect: Most large trucks are assembled in America and made somewhere else. Many countries do not have strict product standards, which means that many trucks have substandard parts. Other times, different parts from different corners of the globe do not work together as they should.

Generally, manufacturers are strictly liable for the injuries their defective products cause. Unforeseeable product misuse, the only effective defense in these cases, only applies in limited situations.

Chualar Bus Crash, 1963

The “bus” in this tragic crash was actually a flatbed semi-truck carrying a canopy, two very long benches, and 58 Mexican migrant agricultural workers. All were killed or injured in the wreck. Most of the migrants were braceros workers, who today would probably be H1-B employment visa immigrants. The bus, and the passengers, were very typical for California orchards during that period.

This particular bus was hauling workers home after they finished a 14-hour shift in the Salinas Valley. As the driver crossed slowly over a private railroad crossing, which didn’t have any lights or other signals, a four-diesel freight train smacked into the bus. Although the engineer slammed on the emergency brake, the train pushed the bus over a half-mile down the track. A survivor later testified that the train hit the back of the bus.

Interstate Commerce Commission investigators blamed the bus driver for the crash. According to the report, Francisco “Pancho” Espinosa had “an unobstructed view of the railroad throughout a considerable distance,” so he “could have readily observed the approaching northbound train if he had looked southward along the track.”

Back then, braceros had numbers but not names, so authorities had a hard time identifying the bodies. Mostly as a result of the crash and its aftermath, the government ended the braceros program shortly thereafter.

In Espinoa’s defense, he had probably driven that same route on many occasions at about the same time, so he did not expect a train. Furthermore, agricultural roads were poor in those days. So, Espinosa probably focused on getting the “bus” over the tracks instead of looking both ways.

As mentioned above, driver error causes almost all of the trick wrecks in Ohio. Sometimes. This diver error is egregious, like falling asleep at the wheel or driving drunk. Other times, the error is much more mundane. Either way, it is still negligence.

In Ohio, commercial operators have a very high duty of care. For example, the truck speed limit is usually lower than the noncommercial driver speed limit. That higher standard of care makes it easier for a Hamilton personal injury lawyer to prove negligence or a lack of care. Because of the aforementioned extenuating circumstances, Espinosa might not have been liable for damages if he was a noncommercial driver. But truck drivers and “bus” drivers are held to a higher standard.

As a footnote, Espinosa, who feared retaliation, fled to Mexico from California shortly after the wreck. Unconfirmed reports state that relatives of crash victims killed Espinosa in Mexico in 1964.

Phoenix Bus Crash, 1959

Like the Chualar wreck, this wreck involved a truck carrying migrant farm workers. Also like the Chualar wreck, this collision involved driver negligence.

This converted flatbed truck was a little safer, as it had elevated sides as well as a semi-permanent top. But that was not enough to prevent the deaths of 36 Mexican nationals when the bus veered off the road, rumbled through a ditch, and smacked into a tree. The crash ruptured the fuel line and caused a fireball explosion. “It sounded like a loud clap of thunder,” one witness remarked. “I ran to the window and saw flames spread over the entire bed of the bus.  Then I heard screaming. By the time I got there, most of those who could get out were wandering in a nearby field or were stretched out in the ditch.”

The driver, Nato Manuel Gloria Jr., told investigators that he “dozed at the wheel” and planned to pull over at the next intersection so his assistant could drive.

Drowsy truck driving is also a serious problem today, especially since many of the aforementioned safety rollbacks affected HOS (hours of service) rules. Truckers can now legally stay behind the wheel much longer. But that legal change does not affect the duty of care in civil court. Driving after 18 consecutive awake hours, not 18 consecutive working hours, is like driving with a .05 BAC level. That is above the legal limit for commercial operators in Ohio and most other states.

An Electronic Logging Device, which is basically an onboard computer, automatically logs driving hours. Therefore, when these cases go to court, a Hamilton personal injury lawyer has direct evidence of fatigue.

Circumstantial evidence of fatigue, such as the tortfeasor’s medical records, is admissible as well. Many truck drivers struggle with sleep apnea, mostly because they sit so much. Sleep apnea is the closing of the primary airway during sleep. Mild sleep apnea (snoring) is merely annoying. Severe sleep apnea is life-threatening.

All forms of sleep apnea interrupt sleep. In fact, these victims normally do not sleep at all. Instead, they essentially doze all night. So, they wake up fatigued, regardless of the hours of sleep they had the night before.

On a related note, to combat the effects of fatigue, many truckers admit they use amphetamines while driving. These drugs often make people feel more alert. But they do not address the underlying effects of fatigue, which include poor judgment and slow reflexes. Additionally, when these drugs wear off, the user often crashes hard and fast.

Houston Ammonia Truck Crash, 1976

On May 11, a speeding tanker truck hauling anhydrous ammonia crashed through a guardrail, fell off a ramp, and exploded on the freeway below. The crash itself killed one person and injured three. The resulting poison gas cloud injured 178 people, 78 of them seriously.

Subsequently, National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded that the excessive speed of the vehicle, combined with the lateral surge of liquid in the partially loaded truck, caused it to overturn. In other words, the driver and the loader(s) were both partially responsible for this wreck, at least according to the NTSB.

Multiple tortfeasor cases are complex in Ohio and most other states. That is especially true if the driver and loader(s) worked for different companies. In such situations, the Buckeye State’s complex joint and several liability rules apply. For the most part, this rule simply means that the two tortfeasors must fight it out to determine who must pay compensation. However, if a Hamilton personal injury lawyer names the incorrect party in court paperwork, the case could fall apart.

The company or companies that employed the driver and loader(s), as opposed to the individuals, are most likely financially responsible for damages in these cases, due to the respondeat superior rule. This rule applies if the tortfeasor was an employee acting within the course and scope of employment at the time of the wreck, or in the loader’s case, in the course of their negligent conduct.

Ohio law defines these respondeat superior prongs in broad terms. For example, truck drivers are usually owner-operators or independent contractors for most purposes. But any degree of employer control, such as dictating the cargo carried, route traveled, or delivery deadline, makes these drivers employees for negligence purposes.

Vicarious liability is especially important in mass injury cases, like the 1976 Houston truck wreck. The driver or loader(s) could not possibly have enough insurance to pay fair compensation to all victims.

This compensation usually includes money for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. Additional punitive damages may be available as well, in some extreme cases.

The duty of care, which was mentioned above, usually sets the standard of care for drivers. The industry standard usually sets the bar for loaders and other non-drivers. In the Houston truck crash case, to establish loader negligence, a Hamilton personal injury must prove that the loader took shortcuts and didn’t follow established safety standards.

Prestonburg, KY, 1958

Overnight rains and early-morning fog contributed to a tragic school bus crash in Prestonburg in 1958. A Floyd County school bus full of elementary and high school students rear-ended a tow truck, causing the bus to careen down an embankment and fall into a rain-swollen Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River.

Somehow, twenty-two children got out of the bus before it sank. 26 students, plus the driver, were lost. Authorities never found most of the bodies.

Note that we said bad weather “contributed” to this wreck. For the most part, bad weather never “causes” a wreck. Sudden extreme weather events, like earthquakes and sky-to-ground lightning strikes, are about the only exception. Bad weather never excuses driver error, like driving too fast for the conditions and rear-ending another vehicle. If anything, bus drivers have a duty to slow down even more and use even more caution when conditions are poor.

Reach Out to a Thorough Butler County Lawyer

Injury victims are entitled to substantial compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Hamilton, contact Kruger & Hodges, Attorneys at Law, by going online or calling 513-894-3333. We do not charge upfront legal fees in these cases.

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