Legal Issues Pertaining to Street Sweeping
How Well is Your Organization Prepared for a Sweeper-Related Accident?
by Ranger Kidwell-Ross, M.A.
How's this for a scenario: You have a sweeping company that conducts highway road sweeping three to five times per week on a four-lane highway with a middle turn lane. Since there's less traffic at night, the sweeping is done then.
In addition to the standard truck lighting, your sweeper has alternating amber LED flashers on the back and an amber beacon on top, in addition to work lights, broom lights and regular truck lights. Your driver is sweeping at less than 5mph.
One night at around 2am and with no prior warning, your operator feels a hard strike against the rear of the sweeper. When s/he stops and gets out to investigate, s/he discovers that a motorcycle has rear-ended the sweeper at a high rate of speed. The motorcyclist has been killed; while s/he watches, the motorcycle explodes into flames and burns along with the body. Ultimately, the deceased cyclist is found to have a blood alcohol level of .14, almost two times the .08 legal limit for impaired driving. No fault by the sweeper or its operator is found by investigating police.
There's no question that an accident of this magnitude is an utter tragedy for the cyclist and his entire circle of friends and family. There will also be lasting effects for the sweeper operator who, when s/he first saw what had happened, collapsed to the ground. They, unfortunately, will have to relive the incident over and over through the years. However, even in an incident as seemingly clearcut as the one outlined above, there will also be significant ramifications for the sweeping company, as well.
The above incident is not hypothetical. It occurred recently to a sweeping company in the Northeast. Their name is not being used for this article because, somewhat astonishingly to this author, the company is being sued by the wife of the cyclist.
Even without the lawsuit, which will have to be defended by the company's insurance company, there were many other ramifications having to do with the accident. Even though the sweeper was doing nothing wrong, the company's owner told us, they got "bashed on the area's news media."
Uninformed, ridiculous statements were made on social media message boards, comments like "Obviously the sweeper operator wasn't looking out for the motorcycle coming up from behind." These many comments brought up the question of whether – in these early days of social media's universal accessibility – such instances of mis-information should be addressed or not. If so, by whom? Ultimately, the owner said he posted respectfully, articulating his position in what he hoped was a calming fashion.
"It's easy to look at yourself as a small enough business that you're under the radar," the owner told WorldSweeper, "but we have learned the hard way that you have to be prepared just in case something like this happens." The question then arises: What type of preparation can you have?
As someone who has been hired several times as an expert witness in accidents involving sweepers, I can tell you that no proverbial rock will be left unturned. In a lawsuit involving serious injury or death, a wide array of discovery questions will be allowed by opposing attorneys.
They will interrogate anyone in the company who they think might provide information that would help them build a case. They will also be allowed access to your company records involving training, safety meetings, repair records, previous safety violations, drug-testing policy and conformance, and more.
Although any lawsuit may eventually be determined to have no merit, in the meantime your insurance company will be forced to fight all allegations. This will be time-consuming for those running the business even when all paperwork is in order. When it's not, the time needed to fight the lawsuit may be all but open-ended. The end result is often a rise in premiums, as well, even when the company was shown not to be liable.
If you are the owner of a small sweeping business you may think you're too small to need an Employee Manual, a drug-testing policy, a sweeper operator training system and all the other attention to detail that larger companies take for granted. Since your opinion in this regard is bound to change if/when a serious accident occurs, I urge you to institute those programs now. If you are not already a member of the World Sweeping Association (www.WorldSweepingPros.org), consider joining to have access to the many informative articles and other information available only to WSA members.
If you run a municipal or DOT sweeping program, it's even more critical that you have a structured program in place, one that provides proof positive of the quality of your training, vehicle maintenance and overall professionalism. As a 'deep pockets' organization, the likelihood of lawsuits is even higher for public agencies than it is for private contractors.
The above story is just one of many I find through the Google search system I have automated for my computer. Every week there is at least one notice about an accident involving a sweeper. Take the time to get prepared before you have to as the result of an accident involving someone in your organization.