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Taking the Load Off: Non-Insured Trailers

I. Tractor Trailer Cases

After a bad truck wreck or semi-truck accident, it’s not always easy to separate the mayhem. This is both literally and legally true: there are sometimes important differences between agreements for liability, regarding the truck or tractor section; versus trailer, contents, or load.

If you are in any way involved with or harmed by a semi-truck injury, you need to speak only with an experienced truck or semi-truck injury accident lawyer. Among the twists and turns involved are agreements between truck owners and third parties. These agreements may shift the load of responsibility between them. It’s important that an injured person doesn’t end up between these two parties, unable to accurately identify the responsible party in a blame game between them. As with so many vehicle accidents, there’s likely one constant…and that’s the important role of insurance coverage. Anyone injured by a semi-truck or trailer needs to meet as soon as possible with a lawyer who knows the trucking industry, and these nuances of insurance. Or, as one case showed: nuances of partial, excluding coverages, and non-insured issues.

This interesting case in North Carolina involved this tug-of-war between an insurance company and the parties that owned, separately, the tractor and the trailer involved in the wreck. This ended up being a perfect example of why the truck injury accident lawyer with experience in the field is so important to protecting your rights. Even the judges on the courts had trouble dealing with the interpretation of semi-truck liability in this complicated setting. The trial court, the appeals court, and eventually judges on the North Carolina Supreme Court: they all came to slightly different conclusions. The real fly in the ointment was because the tractor was insured, and the trailer was not. Nor was it clear who had the duty to carry insurance liability, or even what the insurance agent knew at the time of selling the policy.

II. Three’s Company

It’s not an uncommon scenario: this case involved three very different points of view. There was the truck driver. There was the trailer owner. And there was the insurance agent, who actually had a great deal of experience with both of the other parties.

The truck injury accident lawyer established the clear fact that the truck driver, Edwards, was the one who went to get insurance for his tractor, but not a trailer. This is where it immediately began to get complicated. The lawyer also established the agent knew Edwards did not have legal title to the tractor: the agent told the truck driver that the third-party, Bradford, would have to be the named insured. The truck driver said that was fine and bought the insurance so he could operate the tractor. Edwards, six days later, actually bought a trailer – which was then uninsured, and became the object of this lawsuit. Only after the accident did the agent learn that the trailer was uninsured. Premium payments continued: which raised yet another wrinkle as to the intent to have covered the original trailer.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided that there was no evidence that the agent had in anyway obliged the insurance company to provide coverage for Edward’s uninsured use of the trailer. The key factor was the history involved: Edwards did not own a trailer at the time of taking out a policy. And there had been no evidence introduced to show intent to purchase or hire a trailer. If Edwards had an anyway suggested that he wanted insurance on a trailer that he would be towing, the result would have been quite different.

As will be discussed at the end of this article, there was a dissent, which favored full coverage as argued by the truck injury accident lawyer. The dissenting judge reached a completely different (but very sound) conclusion, about this sort of insider knowledge and industry practices.

The majority on the Supreme Court felt that the insurance company agent’s specific knowledge, or even the later premium payments, were not the material factors. Specifically, the majority felt that information an insurance agent may have received about an insured driver pulling an uninsured trailer was immaterial. They acknowledged the truck injury accident lawyer could under other facts prove a waiver. For example, it could be specifically proven to have been an element in the actual insurance coverage agreement initially. In a similar way, taking premium payments after learning about a new trailer (as in this case) might also in some cases create what’s known as estoppel. This policy of “estoppel” in contracts could have meant, the insurer couldn’t take money with the intent of denying coverage after an accident. Did it apply here though? The majority of judges said “no.” Now, let’s look at estoppel from the dissent’s point of view.

III.  Estoppel that truck!

As noted earlier, there was no consistent agreement between the judges on the courts about how to reach a final decision in this case. The strong dissent in the North Carolina Supreme Court was that the insurance company should not have been able to avoid paying full coverage under the insurance policies that were issued.

The dissenting opinion actually had two very different approaches to why the insurance company should’ve been held liable. First, the dissent felt that there was not any ambiguity in the coverage of a trailer load: this is partly a function of the fact that a trial court decides what the accepted facts in the case are. In other words, the trial court and the dissenting judge felt there was a policy need for certainty, in covering the uninsured trailer, if there was coverage on the tractor. The truck injury accident lawyer had established sound public policy meant to cover an insured truck driver pulling an uninsured trailer. The interesting thing about this approach was that it seemed undebatable to the dissent that this was the reality of the trucking industry.  Whether it will become the majority rule in the future, is uncertain. Certainly, the legal door to this possibility has been opened by the truck injury accident lawyer and dissent in this case.

The second argument by the dissent was strictly about public policy. On this basis, the dissenting judge would have applied estoppel and required full coverage by the insurer. The dissent felt that insurance policies represent a very different sort of contract than most people sign. The judge pointed out that these types of trucking contracts are more along the lines of what are called adhesion contracts. As truck injury accident lawyers know, there is not always a large amount of negotiation between a truck driver and a freighting company. In this instance, the dissent noted that it is slightly unfair to leave liability in limbo and hope that nothing goes wrong.

Although this dissent would’ve been the best possible result for the injured party, and in complete agreement with the truck injury accident lawyer, the dissent is important for another reason. The strength of a dissent often comes back to win another day.


If you, a family member or a loved one have been hurt in a semi-truck or trailer incident—or have questions about a prior or recent accident related to a tractor trailer arrangement, or involving related claims or your legal rights or hearings, please contact us.  You will speak with a truck injury accident lawyer who can best answer your questions about how your cases should proceed.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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