Are You Giving Your Customers Safety Training?

Hundreds of people have ridden in my tow trucks over the years.  I had a recent discussion with a 20+ year friend who turned a normal thought process into a scary, adrenaline-filled immediate search for answers.  I counted back and, of course, had no way to come up with the number of people who had ridden in my various tow units in 33 years of business.   Truck drivers as I towed their tractor/trailer combinations; police officers riding along with their broken-down police car; motor club customers by the hundreds; the occasional Harley owner; the mother who was really upset 5 years ago in Big Spring, Texas when she wrecked her son’s prized Dodge Ram 1500 as she drove it from North Carolina to Camp Pendleton, California to deliver his truck after Marine recruit training.  And in searching my memory, I had given absolutely none of them any type of safety instruction, other than “be careful” or “I’ll be back in a few”….as I hooked up their vehicle.

My aforementioned friend whom I’ve known for 21 years is also an investigator, safety guy, and expert witness.  We were discussing a case in the Northeast where he was retained as an expert for the defense counsel. The attorney was defending a tow driver and a medium-sized towing company that were being sued over a personal injury claim – the injury was part of a routine motor club tow.  The tow my friend described for me was as mundane as it gets – an older gentleman’s vehicle had shut down while driving; he coasted it to the shoulder, and called his motor club.  The club dispatched a tow provider, and our young man went out to save the day.

The older gentleman, when attempting to get into the Hino 258 flatbed, slipped and fell causing some fairly significant injuries to himself.

I know what you’re going to say, and I’m going to interrupt you – common sense and the principle of the matter don’t matter here.  I’ll give you a spoiler, but don’t use this to spoil your concern over this issue, or give yourself a false sense of security.  This case settled, so at least there isn’t case law established on this – YET.

The gentleman contacted an attorney, and this attorney did what all personal injury attorneys do in cases like this. In the suit, they named every party involved in the towing dispatch:  the tow driver, as a separate civil litigant; the towing company; the towing company’s insurance company; the motor club; and even Hino, the manufacturer of the truck.  

Hino, of course, defended themselves as it was determined that the design of the truck didn’t cause the man to fall or become injured.  The only problem is that Hino still had to pay an attorney to go through the process of that defense response.

The motor club wasn’t held responsible because they have an incredible training program that highlights tow operator and customer interaction, as well as directing the customer into the cab of the tow truck for safety reasons.  They specifically address helping the customer inside, while coaching them how to enter and exit the truck safely.  Again, the problem is that the motor club still had to pay an attorney to go through the process of that defense response.

It was ultimately determined in the settlement agreement that the older gentleman, and catch this language, “would not have reasonably known” how to enter a medium-duty truck like the Hino 258 as he had not ever ridden in one or operated one.  This is where the tow operator and towing company is on the hook, so to speak.  A customer with no truck experience cannot be expected to understand the “three points of contact” rule that is so common with towing and trucking operations.  I’d venture to say they’ve never heard that phrase at all.  Why would they?

The tow company and driver paid the settlement.  And no, the driver isn’t covered by some magic umbrella provided by the company’s LLC or incorporation filing.  You make a mistake; you’re on your own.  You hire a lawyer and defend yourself.  And then you pay what the court instructs.  No magic here, just reality.

Something we all take for granted is completely lost on someone who isn’t in our industry.  Even though we all know about the “three points” rule, were you ever specifically taught how to do it, or just told?  I once again tasked my memory, and only ONE of the trucking companies I’ve worked for, and NONE of the towing companies, verbally and physically trained me and others on the three points of contact rule.  It was also never mentioned by any of those companies that if you give someone a ride; perhaps a trainee, a customer, or another driver, you instruct them or remind them about the three points rule.  It is obvious, after seeing the results of this lawsuit, that our attitude about this safety measure needs to change.

My son, Erek, is in the towing industry.  I talked to him about this, and we discussed how long it would take to give the “safety brief” to a customer.  We determined it was less than 15 seconds.  You could tell them about the safety aspects of entering and exiting your truck as you’re walking them from their vehicle to your passenger side door.  His company uses cameras and audio recording in their trucks – this is a good thing for instances like this.  If your customer slips and falls, the audio recording would have picked up your safety briefing – and that serves to minimize your liability.  Heck, you could have your phone in your pocket, kick it into video recording mode and let the phone listen to your conversation.  Again, it’s all about mitigating your liability.

I recommend immediate formal training for all your tow operators on the three points rule:  never climb into the truck with objects in your hand, never do the “hop and slide,” and always treat the truck doorway like a ladder – face the truck and climb the “ladder.”  When exiting, turn around and climb down the “ladder.”  Never, ever, walk out forward – that’s how you slide down the steps and hurt yourself, or even worse, catch your heel on a step and do a faceplant on the ground.  I’ve seen that up close – it isn’t pretty.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, DOCUMENT the training and file it for future use.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live in a litigious world.  People set business owners and employees up for fraudulent suits all the time – don’t play into the trap.  Even if an injury and resulting lawsuit isn’t fraudulent, it is avoidable.  All it takes is some training and awareness.  Be safe out there.