Tragic, fatal New York runaway-trailer accident makes national headlines

In an incident shocking enough to get nationwide news coverage, seven western New York minivan passengers died on a weekday evening in May 2013 when their vehicle was hit by a runaway trailer carrying crushed automobiles that had broken loose from its hauling semi near Truxton in a rural area south of Syracuse. Emergency responders had difficulty handling the severity of the wreckage.

Somehow one passenger in the van survived, the father of two young children who died in the crash. In addition, the driver, only 24, and his fiancee, 21, as well as her adult cousin and the cousin's two kids, all perished. Investigators think the victims all probably died on impact. The children were each between four and seven years old.

The truck was owned by a salvage company and neither its driver nor passenger was hurt. The trailer was reportedly leased from a scrap business.

By the numbers

The Associated Press in covering the collision cites federal large-truck statistics from 2007 to 2011 as showing that only "one in a thousand" big-rig fatal accidents nationally concerned "couplings, hitches or chains." The AP describes further that such a trailer is usually connected to its big rig using a "fifth wheel" system that fits a pin on the trailer into a curved metal mechanism with a locking device.

A truck engineer interviewed by AP felt that it would be rare, but not impossible, for such a system to age and wear down to the point of decoupling. According to Land Line Magazine, local law enforcement blamed failure of the fifth-wheel locking mechanism for the fatal minivan-trailer crash in Truxton.

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles 2011 large-truck crash data found no fatalities were caused by driverless or runaway vehicles, or defective towing hitches, but the DMV did find 26 large-truck accidents were associated with each of these causes (for a total of 52 related accidents) out of 10,634 semi-truck accidents in the state that year.

Rare, but deadly

Runaway trailer accidents may be rare, but when the trailer is heavy and speed high, motorists have little time to react. Of course, large trailers hauled by semis are most likely to be dangerous, but smaller trailers pulled by more modest vehicles can also wreak havoc in accidents.

Duties of care

No matter the size of the trailer or hauling vehicle, the driver and operating company have duties to perform legally and logically required inspections and safety precautions. Hitches, pins, locks and safety chains must be properly engaged and in safe condition, and should be checked before any trailer is pulled.

The Chicago Tribune reports that Master Lock Co. conducted a 2006 survey of more than 300 trailer owners. The results were unsettling, finding that most had inadequate safety knowledge and had not had towing training, and less than 50 percent "properly attached their ... safety chains."

Seek legal counsel

Anyone hurt in a big-rig accident, including those hauling trailers, should discuss the incident with a knowledgeable personal injury attorney with specific experience in large-truck collisions. Such trucks are highly regulated by state and federal laws and an investigation should be launched on behalf of those hurt to determine whether the driver and his or her employer or the equipment owner was in compliance with all applicable laws.

A truck accident lawyer can secure the truck's logbook and black box as part of the investigation, and can advise victims or their survivors about potential legal rights and remedies for recovery if others' negligence or recklessness contributed to the crash.