When is a vehicle considered a commercial vehicle?

It is important for every truck accident attorney to know the difference between normal vehicles and commercial vehicles.  But, it is also important to know when a vehicle could be a non-traditional commercial vehicle.

At first glance, a car or truck may not appear to be commercial.  But, your attorney needs to look deeper to see if it may still be a commercial vehicle.  Meaning, the vehicle may not be not an 18-wheeler, but it still could be subject to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) due to the weight limits.

A commercial vehicle is not always what it appears to be

Would you ever think that a normal pickup truck can be considered a commercial vehicle?  Probably not.

Under the federal regulations, a pickup truck can be considered a commercial vehicle even though it is not an 18-wheeler or big-rig truck.  If a lawyer is handling a severe injury or wrongful death case, and a pickup truck is involved, the lawyer might be leaving a lot of compensation on the table by failing to realize that a commercial vehicle is involved.

Often, a lawyer who does not look at the potential for a commercial vehicle could be leaving hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars on the table.  This is a huge mistake that, unfortunately, happens when inexperienced lawyers try to take on a truck accident case.

What is a commercial vehicle?

Most of us have an idea of what a “commercial vehicle” is.  We think of large box trucks, buses, 18-wheelers, semi-trucks, and tanker trucks.  All of these commercial trucks are regulated and subject to the FMCSR.

However, many attorneys who take on truck accident cases make a mistake by thinking these are the ONLY commercial trucks.  This is a misunderstanding by many lawyers who handle truck cases, and it can lead to lower recovery for the client.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, 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))

So, what does this mean?  It means that a commercial vehicle is NOT defined by the actual weight.  Instead, it is defined by the weight rating.  Lawyers need to be careful not to fall into the trap of missing out on commercial vehicle status by failing to understand the difference between actual weight and gross weight rating.  

Can Ordinary Vehicles Qualify?

The following are other ways that a normal vehicles might actually be classified as a commercial vehicle:

  1. Transporting passengers

If a vehicle is designed to transport passengers, your truck accident attorney should focus on the number of people the vehicle is designed to transport.  If that number is 16 or more passengers, then the vehicle is a commercial motor vehicle. (49 CFR § 383.5(3)).

  1. Gross Vehicle Weight Rating

If the vehicle has a gross weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more, then it is a commercial vehicle. (49 CFR § 383.5(2)).    

  1. Transporting Hazardous Materials

Also, vehicles that are used to transport hazardous materials as defined in the FMCSRs are considered commercial.

Gross vehicle weight rating issues for attorneys to remember

Truck accident attorneys need to remember that the regulations provide another definition for a commercial motor vehicle.  In 49 CFR § 390.5, a commercial motor vehicle is a vehicle that “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)).

Further, under 49 CFR § 390.5(2), attorneys can get an ordinary vehicle into the “commercial vehicle” category if the vehicle “is designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers (including the driver) for compensation.”

It is important to note the distinction between § 383.5(3) and § 390.5(2).  The difference between 16 passengers and 8 passengers is compensation. Meaning, when the vehicle is being used to transport more than 8 people–for compensation–then we are in commercial territory. 

Practice Pointer for Truck Accident Lawyers

I encourage every single truck accident lawyer to investigate the truck weight limits and gross vehicle weight rating of the vehicles involved in the case. 

If the vehicle in your case is used for business, and it weighs more than 10,001 pounds, or 26,001 pounds–then a truck accident lawyer should be immediately thinking that you have a semi-truck or a motorcoach.

Also, always be on the lookout for a trailer.  If a trailer is being towed by a vehicle, then you should investigate whether the vehicle and trailer combination move the overall auto or truck into the commercial classification. 

What I do on every accident case.

As a truck accident lawyer, I always keep the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations close by at all times.  I can not tell you how many times I have seen other lawyers fail to realize that they were dealing with a commercial vehicle.  And this leads to lower compensation for the client (and also possibly legal malpractice).

A deep knowledge of the regulations is a requirement for any lawyer who is taking on truck accident cases. 

So, whenever I start working on a new case, the first thing I do is determine whether there are any commercial vehicles present in the case.  I do a thorough investigation in the beginning to see if I can move any of the autos involved into the “commercial vehicle” territory.

This can turn a case from a minimum policy limits case of $25,000 to one with a minimum policy limit of $750,000 (or more).

But, what really matters here is safety.  And the regulations are in place to keep the roads safe by requiring these big companies to be accountable and keep their commercial vehicles safe.  Big trucking companies are always trying to make more and more profit, and they often put their “bottom line” above all else–including safety.

That is why I focus so closely on the regulations in my truck accident cases.  Because it allows us to hold these big trucking companies accountable and make the roads a safer place.

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Mark Wade

Mark Wade is a personal injury trial lawyer in Georgia. He has built a law firm that specializes in car, truck, and motorcycle accidents in order to provide his clients with the highest level of expertise for their auto accident cases.

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