Ithaca, N.Y. — No estimate has been placed publicly yet on total damages from the tragedy at Simeon’s on the Commons.

But the head of a national organization that advocates for victims and survivors of truck crashes said Tuesday that the insurance of the trucking company involved is woefully inadequate to cover it.

John Lannen, executive director of Truck Safety Coalition, based in Arlington, VA, raised concerns about insurance coverage during an interview Tuesday.

“There was death, there were injuries, there was substantial property damage,” Lannen  said of the Ithaca disaster. “Those costs are not going to be covered by someone carrying the minimum or just above it.”

At least three businesses were directly affected, others incurred losses due to power outages and collateral effects, apartment dwellers were displaced — and the tallying up will continue.

The minimum insurance required for carriers is $750,000. Documents on file with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration list the owner of the truck, Quality Relocation Services, Inc., of Washington state as carrying insurance for $1 million:

Lannen said that level of coverage is no match for the havoc a truck of that size can wreak. Asked what a “responsible” coverage level would be for a vehicle like it, he said “four million dollars … up to ten million dollars.”  Documents prepared by his coalition say that large, major haulers should carry insurance up to $30 million.

He said the federal requirement has lagged far behind the rise in medical/health care costs and inflation.

“It hasn’t been raised in thirty years,” he said of the legal requirement. The coalition’s background paper on the issue asserts that $1 million coverage has become the de facto minimum because the legal minimum is so absurdly low now.

The crash took the life of a young, pregnant mother who worked at Simeon’s, injured a half dozen other people and toppled the entire southeast corner of the four-story building. The driver has been issued tickets for an over-length truck and for a brake defect. Ithaca and state police continue to investigate.

Simeon’s on Wednesday. (Jeff Stein/IthacaVoice)

Lannen’s coalition strongly endorses an increase in the minimum insurance that truck carriers must purchase.

Its background paper notes, “In April 2014, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) released a report on its review of minimum financial responsibility that found current levels to be inadequate. It found that costs for severe and critical injury crashes can easily exceed $1 million, that current limits do not adequately cover catastrophic crashes and acknowledged that medical care inflation would increase levels to at least $3.2 million.”

Insurance is not the only issue facing the truck owner. Whether it will be disciplined, even pulled off the road, is an open question not just because of the crash but due to a dismal safety record. How dismal, and what if any punishment might ensue after the crash, was not a topic a FMCSA official was willing to discuss Tuesday.

“It’s still an open investigation,” Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for FMCSA, said. He would not address any questions related to the Simeon’s crash while the probe continues.

He did, however, offer insight into FMCSA’s enforcement process for taking trucks, drivers or companies deemed unsafe off the roads.
And Lannen said the company should have been identified as “a high-risk carrier” based on its safety and inspection record.

“This truck in particular had repeated brake problems,” he said.
Here is a glimpse at how FMCSA scores Quality Relocation Services Inc.’s safety performance over the last two years:

The number to consider is the large one inside the meter: 98.8%.  As in golf, the lower the score, the better. Quality’s score means that 98.8% of carriers had better “unsafe driving” records than it did during that 24-month period, based on roadside inspection reports and violations cited. In other words, its safety record was in the worst 1.2% percentile of truckers.

DeBruyne would not say whether FMCSA has begun any punitive measures against Quality. He would say, more generally, that there are two ways FMCSA acts against unsafe companies, drivers, or vehicles.

First, if inspectors determine there is “an imminent hazard to public safety,” the federal agency will immediately pull the offending driver, vehicle or company off the road.

Second, if there is a pattern of serious problems, FMCSA can notify the company that it proposes to rate it “unfit” or “unsatisfactory.”  The company then has 60 days to fix the problems or present a credible plan for fixing them. After 60 days, FMCSA determines whether the fixes suffice or whether the company’s authority to operate across state lines should be revoked.

How often do the feds pull a company off the road? About 60 to 70 times a year, DeBruyne said.

Out of an estimated 500,000 carriers, “It’s not a large number,” noted Lannen.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.