Legal issuesNewsTrucking

The case of the missing side guard: Federal judge sides with Great Dane in products-liability suit

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided with a trailer manufacturer in a products-liability case claiming an alternative design would have prevented serious injuries obtained when a 19-year-old women crashed into the side of the vehicle.

Family members attempted to hold Great Dane Limited Partnership responsible after the sedan Janice Wilden, 19, and her infant son were traveling in was pulled underneath the side of a trailer the company manufactured. WIlden’s vehicle struck the left back side of the trailer after the truck driver made a left turn while allegedly failing to yield the right-of-way, according to court documents.

The case against Great Dane relied on the idea that a “telescoping side guard” would have prevented or reduced Wilden’s injuries.

Court documents describe a telescoping side guard as a safety measure that would not only block the space underneath the trailer like an ordinary side guard but also “slide and expand to protect the space opened up when a truck’s sliding rear-axle— which trucks use to meet state and federal weight-per-axle regulations—is moved toward the rear of the truck.”

An ordinary side guard likely would not have offered Wilden any protection in the crash because the trailer’s wheels were in the most rearward position.

“With a regular, non-telescoping side guard, there would still have been a 78-inch gap between the rear tires and the side guard, large enough to fit Wilden’s 72-inch-wide sedan,” court documents read. “Thus, only a telescoping design would have extended far enough back to the rear wheels so as possibly to prevent underride from occurring there.”

The problem is, telescoping side guards only exist in discussions and computer simulations. No one has ever built or tested one of these guards in the real world.

That is why the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, which originally ruled in favor of Great Dane, considered testimony on the feasibility of telescoping side guards from two expert witnesses inadmissible in court.

Without these testimonies, the plantiffs’ did not have a case, and the Court rules in favor of Great Dane. The appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision.

While ordinary side guards do exist, even these guards are not considered industry standard and are not legally required. Federal lawmakers introduced a bill late last year with the intention of changing that.

The Stop Underrides Act is currently awaiting review in both Senate and House committees. If passed, the bipartisan legislation will require front and side guards to be placed on all trucks. It would also place stricter safety requirements on underride guards on the backs of trucks.

“With hundreds of Americans losing their lives due to these crashes every year, the Stop Underrides Act seeks to prevent these kind of deaths, make our roads safer, and spare more families the grief of losing a loved one by implementing underride guards on trucks across the nation,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told Alabama Media Group. “I ask my colleagues in Congress to join me in advancing efforts to have hundreds of lives across the country.”

The bill was introduced after the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted test crashes with and without side guards.

“In both tests, a midsize car struck the center of a 53-foot-long dry van trailer. In the AngelWing test, the underride guard bent but didn’t allow the car to go underneath the trailer, so the car’s airbags and safety belt could properly restrain the test dummy in the driver seat,” the IIHS test report states. “In the second test with no underride guard for protection, the car ran into the trailer and kept going. The impact sheared off part of the roof, and the sedan became wedged beneath the trailer. In a real-world crash like this, any occupants in the car would likely sustain fatal injuries.”

It is unclear when the bill when see further action.

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Ashley Coker, Staff Writer

Ashley is interested in the opportunities and issues that arise at the intersection of law and technology. She is the primary contributor to the news site content. She studied journalism at Middle Tennessee State University and worked as an editor and reporter at two daily newspapers before joining FreightWaves. Ashley spends her free time at the dog park with her beagle, Ruth, or scouring the internet for last minute flight deals.