Pickup Towing Lawsuits: Don’t Get Caught With Your Hitches Down!
The wrong trailer being towed behind the wrong pickup can spell financial disaster for your company
by Bruce W. Smith
If you own a business or manage a municipality where pickups are towing trailers, at some point in time the chances are pretty good there’s going to be an accident.
If it’s just a fender-bender, it’s probably not going to be a big deal. The insurance company will sort it out, the damages are repaired, and life goes on as usual.
But if there’re injuries involved, or God forbid, a death, things change dramatically: Lawyers and lawsuits come out of the woodwork looking for deep pockets that can be held responsible.
One of the first things the attorneys on the plaintiff’s side will be looking at is pinning responsibility for the accident squarely on your driver and your company.
You can bet your business the first thing they’ll be looking at is if the pickup was fit to be on the road – and if the truck was “properly equipped’ to be towing the trailer hitched to it.
That means those suing your company will be looking at three key factors: 1) What was the weight of the towed trailer; 2) the type of hitch setup on the truck; and 3) the pickup manufacturer’s recommended hitch for the weight of that trailered load.
If the trailered weight was heavier than the pickup manufacturer’s limits for the type of hitch on the truck you are facing the proverbial position of “being between a rock and a hard place” in the liability department.
“When the driver of the vehicle doesn’t comply with the vehicle manufacturer’s stated tow ratings, it turns 50/50 cases into loser cases,” says Ashley de la Cerda, a partner at Walters, Balido & Crain Attorneys at Law in Dallas.
“And it turns loser cases into big loser cases,” warns Cerda.
Cerda goes on to explain how what might be a simple negligence case can quickly turn into one of “gross negligence” if the jury hears how the driver and the company that employs the driver “willfully disregarded the general safety of others by towing more than what either the truck or the hitch were rated.”
Being found guilty of gross negligence brings in punitive damages, which can easily result in the plantiff receiving seven-figure jury awards; fines that your insurance company may not cover.
Being found guilty of gross negligence could also result in jail time.
How do you know if the trailers your fleet’s pickups are towing are “properly equipped”?
1) Read the “towing” section of each pickup’s owner’s manual carefully. Pay attention to “maximum weight-carrying capacity,” which is the weight the hitch from the factory can handle using the standard ball/shank setup.
2) Go to the pickup manufacturer’s fleet/commercial site and look up trailer tow ratings for each specific make/model pickup. Read the fine print on maximum “weight-carrying” trailer capacities—and pay close attention to asterisk (*) and footnotes by the numbers.
3) Understand the difference between “weight-carrying” and “weight-distributing” hitches. (Weight-distributing hitches are common on RV trailers, and have “spring bars” attached to the hitch head.)
Here’s a quick overview of some towing limitations on pre-2013 pickups:
- All Ford, Ram, Nissan, Toyota and GM ½-ton pickups have a maximum weight-carrying limit of 5,000 pounds; trailered load above 5,000 pounds requires the use of a weight-distributing hitch.
- Dodge/Ram 2500/3500 pickups require the use of a weight-distributing hitch on trailered loads weighing more than 5,000 pounds up to about 12,000 pounds (depending on model) at which point a gooseneck or 5th wheel is required.
- Ford F-250/350 single-rear-wheel models require a weight-distributing hitch above 6,000 pounds and a gooseneck for trailers above 12,500.
- Ford F-350/450 duallies require the use of a weight-distributing hitch on trailered weights above 8,500 pounds (diesel) and the use of a gooseneck on trailered weights above 14,000 (450 modes it’s 17,500 pounds)
- GM 2500/3500 pickups require the use of a weight-distributing hitch on trailered weights above 9,000 pounds (depends on model) and a gooseneck on trailers above 13,000 pounds (varies by model).
Now, how many of your fleet’s pickups towing trailers are really properly equipped? Better to know now than finding out in a courtroom. – Bruce W. Smith / Editor, ProPickup