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When Does An Ordinary Vehicle Qualify As A Commercial Truck?

September 25, 2019 by Steven M. Gursten

When Does An Ordinary Vehicle Qualify As A Commercial Truck?

What every truck accident attorney should know about non-traditional commercial vehicles, and how ordinary vehicles can be subject to FMSCRs due to their weight ratings

Most people have a common understanding of what a “commercial vehicle” is. We first think of semi-trucks, large box trucks, motor coaches and buses. But many lawyers who handle trucking accident cases are making a mistake when they apply this common understanding – or, as it often turns out, misunderstanding – to truck cases.

That’s because a commercial vehicle or commercial motor vehicle (CMV) is not always what it may appear to be.

Would you ever believe something like a pickup truck can sometimes be a commercial vehicle?

A pickup truck can be considered a commercial vehicle even though it is not a traditional semi-truck or big-rig truck under certain circumstances. If a lawyer is handling a serious injury or wrongful death case that involves a pickup truck under these circumstances and doesn’t know this, and therefore treats the pickup truck like an ordinary motor vehicle, then that lawyer is making a mistake that can leave hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) on the settlement table.

And that lawyer – especially if he or she is not an experienced truck accident lawyer – is probably committing legal malpractice as well.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) definitions section, a commercial vehicle is defined as a motor vehicle that:

” . . . has a gross combination weight rating or gross combination weight of 11,794 kilograms or more (26,001 pounds or more), whichever is greater, inclusive of a towed unit(s) with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of more than 4,536 kilograms (10,000 pounds), whichever is greater.” (49 CFR § 383.5(1))

Given this definition, it’s critically important to remember that a CMV is not defined by the actual weight — it is defined based on the weight rating. Please do not fall into the trap of missing CMV cases by confusing the actual weight with the gross weight rating!

There are other ways for an ordinary vehicle to be considered a commercial vehicle as well:

  1. Gross vehicle weight rating: If the vehicle itself has a gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more, that is a CMV. (49 CFR § 383.5(2)) There is a subtle difference between subsection (1) and subsection (2) of the rule: Sub (1) is the gross combination weight rating whereas sub (2) examines only the gross weight rating of the vehicle in question.
  2. Transporting passengers: Additionally, if a vehicle is designed to transport passengers, the truck accident attorney should focus on how many passengers the vehicle is designed to move. If it is designed to move 16 passengers (including the driver), then the vehicle qualifies as a CMV. (49 CFR § 383.5(3)) This situation commonly arises in cases that involve “jitney” buses, which are typically small buses or vans that transport a limited number of passengers for a low fee. Typically, the industry practice is for jitney drivers to rent the buses or vans from a company for a day.
  3. Transporting hazardous materials: Finally, vehicles used to transport hazardous materials, as defined in the FMCSRs, also trigger the applicable CMV rules. (49 CFR § 383.5(4))

Additional gross vehicle weight rating factors for attorneys to consider

As you can see, there are many avenues available to move an ordinary vehicle into CMV territory. But the rules don’t even stop there. Truck accident lawyers should know that in 49 CFR § 390.5, there is another definition of CMV. Under that portion of the FMCSRs, a commercial motor vehicle “has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross combination weight rating, or gross vehicle weight or gross combination weight, of 4,536 kg (10,001 pounds) or more, whichever is greater.” (49 CFR § 390.5(1))

And another way to move an ordinary vehicle into CMV territory is to use 49 CFR § 390.5(2). Under that section, a vehicle is a commercial vehicle if “it is designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers (including the driver) for compensation.” Note the difference between § 383.5(3) and § 390.5(2) — under the latter if compensation is involved then the vehicle need only be designed to transport 8 people as opposed to 16.

As a final practice tip, it’s essential that every truck accident lawyer always discover the truck weight limits and the gross vehicle weight rating. If the vehicle is a business vehicle weighing more than 10,001 pounds, or 26,001 pounds, then you must automatically think “semi-truck” or “motorcoach.” More importantly, any time a trailer is being hauled, you should instinctively look into whether the trailer and vehicle combination move it into the realm of a CMV.

As a lawyer, I always keep these regulations as arrows in my litigation quiver. These rules can dramatically change the nature of your case. It can turn a minimum insurance policy limit of $20,000 into one with minimum insurance policy limits of $750,000. More importantly, these regulations help ensure that even small, non-traditional, commercial vehicles operate safely. At the end of the day, safety is paramount above all else – especially profit for dangerous trucking companies.

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