According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), more than ninety thousand people are injured or killed in forklift accidents each year in the United States. Forklifts, backloaders, cranes, tractors, bobcats, and other powered industrial trucks (PITs) can present serious hazards to workers and bystanders alike.
Thousands of companies in the United States and abroad use forklifts on a daily basis. They are usually operated safely, but there are those occasions when they aren't. Forklift accidents can occur for a number of reasons, some of the most common are:
Improper or insufficient training
OSHA and state regulatory agencies require workers to be trained and certified before they're allowed to operate a forklift. When employers fail to provide proper training to their operators, the likelihood of an accident dramatically increases.
Unlike most other vehicles, forklifts are normally steered by their back wheels. When the forklift turns on its rear wheels, its rear engine compartment moves with it. An operator who fails to account for the distance can easily swing the rear of the forklift into standing inventory, a coworker or bystander. The inertia produced by the weight of the forklift can make it impossible to stop in time.
Tipping can occur when a forklift is overloaded, when it is driven up or down a steep incline, or when operated recklessly.
Most forklifts are equipped with overhead guards, or "masts," to protect the driver from falling objects. If a forklift begins to tip over and the driver tries to jump off, the masts can impede his exit, trapping him between the forklift and the floor.
Failing to chock or secure the forklift
Forklifts are often used to load and unload inventory from ships, trucks, and warehouses. When not in use, operators can engage the brake, but that may not be enough to keep the forklift from moving. The forklift operator must be sure to "chock" the wheels. Chocking means placing a wedge in front of and behind each wheel to ensure the forklift won't move.
Failure to maintain equipment
Improperly maintained forklifts can break down in the middle of operation. Sudden unanticipated stops can cause inventory to dislodge and fall on coworkers or bystanders. Other accidents include fires started from leaking engine oil, crashes due to worn brakes, and inventory dropping when the hydraulics fail.
If you've been injured in a forklift accident or other industrial vehicle accident, you must file a "first report of injury" form, or DWC-1. The DWC-1 formally notifies your employer and must be filed as soon as possible after the accident. If you require emergency medical treatment, you can complete the form once your condition is stable.
For further medical treatment, ask your employer for a list of approved physicians. These doctors are paid by the workers' comp insurance company. The one you choose is your "primary treating physician." The primary physician makes an initial diagnosis of your injuries, then refers you to a specialist in your specific type of injury.
Workers' comp insurance pays all of your medical bills and out-of-pocket expenses, as long as they come from an approved medical source. Also, while you're in treatment or recovering, workers' comp pays about two-thirds of your lost wages. If your injury results in a disability, you may also receive a cash settlement award.
Under state workers' compensation laws, you don't have to prove your employer or a coworker was negligent. Your injury is proof enough to claim workers' comp benefits. The disadvantage is that although workers' comp provides medical and lost wage benefits, you cannot receive a settlement for your pain and suffering.
While state workers' comp laws limit your benefits to medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and a portion of your lost wages, injuries caused by third parties may entitle you to additional benefits, including full lost wages and pain and suffering.
A third-party action is a civil claim for damages against a party other than your employer. Unlike workers' comp, you must prove your injury wouldn't have occurred "but for" the negligence of the other party. The two most common third-party actions involving forklifts and other powered industrial trucks are premises liability and product liability.
If a forklift or PIT was operating on an unreasonably dangerous surface at the time of your injury, and the dangerous condition was a contributing factor, you may have the basis of a personal injury lawsuit against the landowner. Under state and common law, a landowner has a legal duty make his premises safe for those who legally enter.
If a landowner's negligence causes injuries to a forklift operator, coworker or bystander, they may have a legal basis for a third-party civil lawsuit. Liability may extend to others if their negligence was also a contributing factor. Other liable parties include those who are contracted to maintain the property, or a building contractor whose negligence caused an unsafe condition.
Example: Sinkhole accident
Alex worked in the warehouse of a manufacturing company. His duties included daily operation of a forklift. Alex was driving the forklift outside of the building when it suddenly fell into a sinkhole. The forklift tipped over, seriously injuring Alex.
Alex was entitled not only to workers' comp benefits through his employer, but since the land was owned by a third party, he also had a legitimate claim against the landowner based on negligent maintenance of the property.
A forklift or PIT can be inherently dangerous because of a design flaw. If so, the manufacturer may be liable for injuries that occurred as a direct result of the flaw. This falls under the legal theory of "strict liability." Unlike a workers' compensation or third-party negligence claim, a strict liability product defect case is based on proof that the equipment design is inherently flawed and unreasonably dangerous.
Example: Defective fuel line causes fire
Sally worked as a bobcat operator for a local construction company. She was driving the bobcat through the warehouse when it suddenly caught on fire, causing second and third degree burns. Sally retained an attorney, and they learned the bobcat had a defective fuel line clamp.
The defective clamp had failed and the fuel line broke loose. Fuel dropped onto the hot engine causing a fire to ignite. Sally not only had a legitimate workers' compensation claim, but also had a strict liability claim against the bobcat manufacturer.
When a forklift accident results in the death of a bystander or other non-employee, the deceased's estate may bring a third-party civil lawsuit against the operator and his employer. In a wrongful death case, most states require a personal representative to prove the operator or his employer's negligent conduct caused the death, resulting in an economic and personal loss to the immediate family members.
Example: Killed by negligent driver
Rod was at a private storage facility dropping off some furniture. The facility had a forklift used to move items from one building to another. Rod was walking to his storage area when he was hit by the forklift. The operator later said he didn't see Rod.
Rod succumbed to his injuries and died. Rod's wife and children alleged the forklift driver was negligent, and the storage facility lacked sufficient safety precautions. They successfully filed a wrongful death claim against the forklift operator and owner of the facility.
Legal representation can be an advantage, but an attorney may not be absolutely necessary in some injury cases. In a minor soft-tissue workers' comp claim, for instance, negligence is not an issue and pain and suffering compensation is prohibited, so the standard settlement is payment of medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and a portion of lost wages.
In more serious workers' comp cases, where the accident may result in a permanent disability, consulting with a workers' comp attorney is advisable. You will be entitled to a lump sum award that only an experienced attorney can accurately judge.
The same goes for third-party cases involving serious injury. Whether it's a defective product, premises liability, or wrongful death claim caused by a forklift or other industrial vehicle, an experienced personal injury attorney is essential. Attorneys have leverage you don't. They can subpoena records, take depositions, engage in additional pretrial discovery, and file a lawsuit if necessary.
Most personal injury and workers' comp attorneys don't charge for initial office consultations, and they work on a contingency fee basis. If your forklift or PIT injury is serious, or your workers' comp claim involves a disability, meeting with an attorney is essential. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
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