Insurance no shield for trucking firms involved in crashes
Trucking companies involved in major crashes, such as the May tanker fire that damaged two bridges over Interstate 81 in Dauphin County, could find themselves paying significantly for property damages.
Essentially, insurance isn't an impenetrable shield, and governments or other injured parties can recoup losses beyond insurance coverage, state officials and transportation attorneys said.
On May 9, a tanker truck from Cumberland County-based Tameric Enterprises carrying diesel fuel crashed on the westbound ramp from I-81 to Routes 22/322 and caught fire. The intense blaze irreparably damaged the overhead bridge that carried Route 22 eastbound traffic into Harrisburg. The ramp bridge the truck was on can be repaired, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
The entire project to repair and replace the two bridges, plus emergency response and demolition charges, could cost more than $12 million, said Greg Penny, a district spokesman for PennDOT.
"If the driver is responsible, then there's an expectation that some insurance money would pay for it," Penny said about the crash.
PennDOT doesn't expect to recoup the entire cost of the damage from Tameric, but the department does charge drivers and companies for damage from crashes, he said. For example, if a truck or car destroys a sign or guide rail, the owner or driver is responsible for those costs.
Trucking companies are required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA, to carry insurance. The bare minimum for some types of companies is $750,000 coverage, while most companies have insurance of $1 million or more. It depends on what the trucks are hauling and the class of the vehicles. Tameric has $1 million in insurance, according to FMCSA.
"The companies, in order to operate, have to have insurance," said Doug Marcello, an attorney and a partner in Carlisle-based Marcello & Kivisto. The firm doesn't represent Tameric but does do most of its work representing trucking companies. Both partners have their commercial driver's licenses, too, he said.
Depending on the facts of a police investigation, companies and drivers can face criminal liability in addition to civil liability, Marcello said. Either way, it isn't safe to assume your company is covered by the insurance minimum.
"There could be an exposure for a company to the damages beyond the coverage," he said.
Two bridges costing millions of dollars is a different story than guide rails and signs, Penny said. PennDOT is waiting to hear what Pennsylvania State Police say about the Tameric crash, he said.
The crash remains under investigation, said Trooper Robert Hicks, a spokesman for the state police's Troop H barracks in Harrisburg. He had no update on the investigation or a timetable for when it would be complete.
Tameric directed questions about the accident to its attorney, William E. Schaefer with Lehigh County-based Hendrzak & Lloyd. Schaefer did not return calls seeking comment.
Criminal liability for damages can be an issue affecting how much the state seeks from responsible parties, Penny said.
"We don't know (when that will be resolved), and it's not holding us up either," Penny said. "That's something that could take years."
The critical nature of the bridges near Harrisburg means the repairs have to move forward, he said. PennDOT will first fix the bridges using state and federal money. The U.S. Department of Transportation made $2 million in emergency funds available for repairs.
PennDOT awarded the contract for work on the bridges to G.A. & F.C. Wagman, the York County-based infrastructure construction group. Lancaster County-based High Industries Inc. is making the beams for the Route 22 bridge replacement.
For the trucking industry, such accidents illustrate why companies need to review insurance policies with their agents and choose the coverage that fits potential risks.
A company's history could account for a lot in matters of insurance price and coverage.
"Most companies that operate safely and have a good safety department probably won't have a problem," said Jim Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, the state's trucking trade group.
Trucking operational safety has been a focus in recent years, with new systems to monitor firms and rate their performance, which has been at times controversial.
Tameric's overall safety could be described as good. It's had 15 inspections of its vehicles and drivers, including hazardous-materials inspections, in the past two years, according to the FMCSA. None resulted in findings that placed the company's trucks out of service.
Nationally, on average, 20.7 percent of vehicle inspections resulted in out-of-service actions in 2009 and 2010, according to FMCSA.
In the past two years, Tameric's only reportable incident was the I-81 crash. So what happens in that case largely hinges on the police report.
Even if crash investigations confirm there was no criminal liability in a case, afflicted parties can still seek damages in civil courts, Marcello said.
"(Lack of criminal liability) would be a facet of the civil case, but it wouldn't necessarily end the matter," he said.