It's every rental store owner's nightmare: a phone call that their trailer or equipment came unhitched during transport, causing extensive damage or injury. Fortunately, it's relatively easy to prevent such a phone call - provided the rental store owner and his or her employees understand the potential risks.
"Trailer and towable claims are the most frequent liability claim for rental store owners," says Mike Martinie, vice president of marketing and sales for ARA Insurance Services. "It's been that way for as long as I have been around and that's been a lot of years."
Martinie says that in most claims, the coupler comes off the ball, but the chains hold. The customer realizes something is wrong and hits the brakes. The trailer then slams into the back of the truck or tow vehicle, causing hundreds or thousands of dollars in damage.
Sometimes, however, the chains don't hold. "Now you have a trailer or towable freewheeling down the road, with the potential to run into someone head-on," Martinie says.
Minimizing human error
In theory, the liability for an accident caused by an unhitched trailer rests with the person who connected the trailer or towable to the towing vehicle and/or the person who was driving the vehicle at the time of the accident. In the "deep pocket" world of trial lawyers, however, rental store owners and their insurers can find themselves shelling out money for damages if the jury can be convinced the customer wasn't properly informed of all the risks and safety considerations concerning trailer connections. At the very least, the rental store or its insurance carrier could face significant pretrial costs to prove the customer was at fault.
That said, a proactive policy is the best insurance to avoid legal claims, while vigilance and education are the keys to preventing accidents. Employees should be trained and tested in the proper method for loading the trailer and connecting it to the tow vehicle. Only employees should be allowed to connect the trailer or towable when the customer picks it up at the rental store.
Customers should be discouraged from disconnecting the trailer or towable from the tow vehicle, if possible. In many instances, however, the trailer or towable must be unhitched. At this point, customer education becomes critical, Martinie says, because most trailer/towable claims occur when the customer is bringing the equipment back to the store.
Try as they might to blame the equipment, the trailer or the coupler, in almost every case human error is responsible for mishaps.
"There are four or five different (hitch) designs out there and I haven't seen any of them fail if they are used properly," says Brian Weseman, president of Towmaster Trailers.
Tow vehicles are equipped with one of three different balls – 1 7/8 inches, 2 inches and 2 5/16 inches in diameter. The 2-inch ball is probably the most common, although Weseman says more rental stores are shifting to couplers for the 2 5/16-inch ball because of its increased carrying capacity.
That presents a challenge, because you have to match the size of the ball to the coupler. Distinguishing between the different size balls is difficult to do visually, and dangerous as well. Rental store employees should be trained and retrained to check the diameter number stamped on the ball itself.
"You have to make sure you have the correct mate," says Dave Medbery, national sales manager for JLG Triple-L Trailers. "If you don't, it will come off when you hit a bump."
Properly securing the trailer
Once the coupler and ball have been connected, the next step is to properly secure the safety chains. The chains should be crossed under the ball once; the chain connected to the left side of the trailer should connect to the right side of the truck and the chain connected to the right side of the trailer should connect to the left side of the truck. This "X" configuration provides stability.