In October of 2009, FONTAINE Parts Connection, unveiled and began promoting a “new” family of Fifth Wheels. The ULTRA LT was touted as being the lightest weight Fifth wheel slider system available. Promotional materials claimed weight savings of up to 100 pounds over alternate systems. FONTAINE has been associated with the trucking industry for decades. Fifth wheels play an integral role in connecting a tractor and trailer together, in conjunction with a secured kingpin. The connection and coupling of tractor and trailer is a ritualistic procedure performed by truckers across the United States. The sudden decoupling, or disconnection, of a tractor from trailer can present a hazardous and potentially tragic circumstance to motorist and trucker.
In July of 2015, reports surfaced of the potential for “Up to 6K Fault Truck Hitches May Be On The Road”. At the time, CBS News reported on an accident involving a 12 ton semi-trailer that came loose from the tractor plowing into pre-dawn commuters on “Devil’s Backbone” near Camden, Ohio. The trailer killed a 43 year old father of three, Michael Brown, and 39 year old father of one, Shawn Wilson. CBS News reported that after three (3) failed attempts to couple the tractor and trailer by latching the kingpin and FONTAINE ULTRA LT the trucker finally succeeded on the fourth attempt. Yet, it later disengaged while he attempted to climb “Devils Backbone” while en route to his destination.
The actual event occurred on January 24, 2014, and originally faulted the driver for improperly inspecting the hitch. Drivers, and their carriers, are charged with certain responsibilities through Federal Motor Carrier Regulations which govern their activities in conjunction with state laws. Some seventeen (17) months after the accident the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) raised the possibility that the hitch itself –a FONTAINE ULTRA LT– was defective. Estimates of over 6, 000 semis across the United States using the FONTAINE ULTRA LT emerged as questions swirled.
On September 10, 2015, U.S. News & World Report in, “Alabama Company Recalls 6,800 Tractor-Trailer Hitches After Ohio Crash That Killed 2 Men”, that FONTAINE Fifth Wheel of Trussville, Alabama, the manufacturer of the FONTAINE ULTRA LT, had agreed to recall and replace the hitches with another model with a different locking mechanism. This report also notes that the company had stopped making the hitches in 2013. Tom Krisher, reported in the U.S. News & World Report article that, “documents filed with the agency (NHTSA) that the hitch locking mechanisms can be damaged over time by truck operators who don’t follow coupling and maintenance procedures. The hitches are designed to lock a pin from the trailer in a hole and hold it while the truck is moving. But the documents say “cumulative damage” can cause the hitch lock to malfunction or even fail.
The actual FONTAINE Safety Recall Notice identifies cumulative damage as a result of the failure of operators to use proper coupling and maintenance procedures over time. Such practices include high coupling, failure to conduct a proper visual inspection, failure to ensure the Fifth Wheel is fully open and ready to couple proper to attempted coupling and failure to follow recommended maintenance practies. The Safety Recall Notice appears here. NHTSA’s ability to prompt manufacturer responses has been criticized, like the GM RECALL or TAKATA air bag investigation, however it appears to have been able to obtain more expedient action in this case.
FONTAINE provides page to verify whether or not a particular FONTAINE Fifth Wheel qualifies for the ULTRA LT RECALL PROGRAM here by verifying the ULTRA LT 9 digit serial number. The top image above depicts the page found here on FONTAINE’S main site as a sub-page relating to the recall. Individuals may call the company and provide a serial number to verify if is subject to recall or identify their own Model Number.
On October 30, 2015, Transport Topics, The Newspaper of Trucking and Freight Transportation, published “All Truck OEMS Recall Vehicles with Discontinued Fontaine Ultra LT Fifth Wheel“. This report indicates that earlier reports of 6,800 trucks being potentially impacted may have underestimated the number of potentially impacted trucks. In fact, this report reflects that in conjunction with other recalls the number may be closer to 11,000 or 10,984 as reflected here.
Estimates in the Transport Topics, The Newspaper of Trucking and Freight Transportation, report provide the following estimates by manufacturer:
Matt Cole, of OVERDRIVE, also reported the increased numbers in “Nearly 11,000 Trucks Being Recalled in Fontaine Fifth Wheel Recall” on October 29, 2015.
Whether these numbers will continue to escalate remains to be determined.
Our office is investigating potential cases arising out of a defective Fifth Wheel or the failure to properly maintain, or couple, tractors and trailers. Gabriel F Zambrano of our office is leading the investigation of these, and other commercial motor vehicle cases. He is a member of Plaintiff only litigation groups dedicated to the investigation of cases involving trucks and other commercial vehicles including the Association of Plaintiff Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America (APITLA) and other private groups. You can e-mail him with any questions via [email protected] or call (954) 524-2820 during business hours on Eastern Standard Time.