Towing Equipment With Pickups A Liability Issue

14SilveradoBWS_BS23461-400x266Play by the rules when towing with pickups; using a weight-distribution hitch helps keep owners out of the liability issues while increasing driver safety

by the HWT Staff

Chances are you’ve seen a trailer flipped and the pickup towing it off the road or wrecked close by.

If the driver’s lucky, it was only the trailer and pickup that got damaged. Worse case scenario: someone was killed in the trailer-towing accident.

The large majority of pickup-towing-trailer accidents, whether minor or major, are directly related to the trailer being overloaded for the truck towing it – or the truck not being “properly equipped” to handle the trailered load.

Either way, if there’re injuries or death involved, the company that owns the pickup can expect to be sued. And the company will most likely loose because it’s easy to show the driver was negligent.

Negligent because the pickup (or SUV) wasn’t properly equipper per the vehicle manufacturer’s stated guidelines of using a weight-distrubuting hitch when towing trailers over a certain loaded weight.

You think your pickup pulls a trailer quite well in your estimation, so why bother with a weight-distributing hitch setup that might add 60 seconds to your hookup routine?

You’d be better to ask, “why not?”

Most pickup makes/models have different tow ratings. What pickups can “legally” tow â€“ be it stock or modified in some fashion – is usually less than the advertised tow rating; among other things, those ratings don’t usually include the weight of the hitch or hardware, cargo or passengers.

Those tow ratings are also determined by towing on-the-ball with the hitch and shank, or employing a weight-dsitrubuting hitch.

All of the vehicle manufacturer’s towing guides have an asterisk or footnote emphasizing that above a certain trailer and/or tongue weight, a weight-distributing hitch must be used.

Even though your pickup may be rated to tow heavy loads, that doesn’t it can legally tow equipment trailers using a regular hitch ball-and-shank setup. 

For instance, the 2011 Ram HD pickups list a weight-distribution hitch as required for trailers weighing more than 5,000 pounds.

Ford’s 2015 SuperDuty Towing Guide has the footnote right at the header, “Maximum loaded trailer weight requires weight-distribution hitch.”

Chevrolet’s 2015 Trailering Guide for 1/2-tons requires weight-distribution for any trailer that, when loaded, will weigh more than 5,000 pounds.

Weight-distribution guidelines also apply to pre-2011 models, often with lower thresholds since earlier trucks towed less. 


Why all the fuss? What the manufacturer requires in your owner’s manual, data plates and stickers on the truck, and trailer guides opens your company to legal liability in the event of any incident where the driver of the tow vehicle is found to be towing outside those requirements.

The truck-maker may have deep pockets, but if you weren’t towing as required, it will be your corporate pockets that get emptied.2015 Ford F-150 Tows Loaded Trailer in Extreme Heat

And if your insurance company considers you operating unsafely by disregarding requirements set forth in the owner’s manual and all relevant literature, don’t expect any help from them.

As Jonathan Michaels, founding member of Michaels Law Group, which specializes in representing clients in the automotive industry, notes, “Towing regulations are governed by state vehicle codes, and they provide for specific methods of use and installation for towing mechanisms.

“Failure to comply with these varied requirements,” Michaels says, “can lead to steep civil liability for both the vehicle operator and vehicle owner under the legal theory of negligence per se.”

So whether or not you think your truck needs it, legal and insurance requirements dictate you use a weight-distribution setup above the pickup manufacturer’s stated trailered weights.


A weight-distributing hitch greatly improves the road and handling of a stock pickup or SUV when towing a trailer that weighs more than the tow vehicle.

Pickups towing trailered loads more than 5,000 pounds with 1/2-ton need to pay attention to the hitch being used. HD pickups should use a W-D hitch on trailered loads of more than 8,000 pounds.Pickups towing trailered loads more than 5,000 pounds with 1/2-ton need to pay attention to the hitch being used. HD pickups should use a W-D hitch on trailered loads of more than 8,000 pounds.

If the ride height, springs, shocks, wheels, tires, or some combination of suspension elements have been modified, the added stability that a W-D hitch provides may be doubly welcome.

Also, adding a lot of weight to the rear axle tends to lighten the front axle, making steering touchy, less likely to return to center, and perhaps altering the geometry enough that tires will wear prematurely.

The concept behind a W-D hitch employs basic physics to balance the load on the truck more equally between front and rear axles. 

The main goal using such a hitch is to have the truck remain at its normal level stance with minimum drop on the rear axle, while the trailer remains level on its axles. This provides the best vehicle and trailer handling.