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What Is MCS-90? Here’s Your Answer (in Plain English)

By Stewart J. Guss on June 7th, 2019 Nationwide 18 Wheeler Accident Lawyer

Most people have never heard of MCS-90. In our experience, those who have fall into three general categories: (1) people who work in and around the commercial trucking industry; (2) people who work in the commercial trucking insurance industry; and (3) people who get hurt in accidents involving commercial trucks, and suddenly discover that this THING called “MCS-90” makes a big difference in whether they can recover compensation for their injuries.

MCS-90: The Very Basic Explanation

MCS-90 is an “endorsement” to a commercial auto insurance policy that virtually every trucking company and other motor carrier operating in interstate commerce has to have (In case you’re not familiar with those words: an “endorsement” is insurance-company-speak for an add-on to a standard insurance policy; a “motor carrier” is a company that transports passengers or cargo for pay; and “interstate commerce” means doing business that crosses state lines).

The MCS-90 “endorsement” to standard commercial auto insurance policies basically acts as a guarantee to you, a member of the public. It promises that if you get injured in an accident involving a commercial truck (so long as you’re not the one driving it), you’ll have access to at least a minimum amount of money to pay for your injuries even if the standard insurance policy doesn’t cover the commercial truck involved in your accident for some reason.

Here’s an Example of What That Means.

Say you’re driving down I-10 and a truck tips over on the highway. You do all you can to avoid the situation, but its too late, and you are struck and injured by the truck. It’s a bad scene. You end up in the hospital for months. Between your medical bills, car repairs, and lost time at work, you’re looking at at least $100,000 in damages, and that’s before taking your pain and suffering into consideration.

WHAT DO YOU DO?

Now, normally in that situation, you’d expect the trucker/trucking company’s insurance policy to pay for your damages and injuries. After all, the accident wasn’t your fault. But in this case, it turns out the trucker was road-raging at the time of the accident, and that’s what caused him to drive out of control and tip over. Road rage is a typical “exclusion” to a standard commercial truck insurance policy—in other words, most commercial truck insurance policies don’t cover damages resulting from a “road rage” accident caused by a truck driver.

No problem, you think, I’ll just sue the trucker and the trucking company. But that turns out to be a dead end, too. The trucker is broke, and the trucking company is some fly-by-night outfit that can barely cover its own payroll, much less pay you the hundreds of thousands of dollars you deserve.

WHAT NOW?

This is where MCS-90 kicks in. To operate a commercial vehicle in “interstate commerce,” trucking companies (a.k.a. “motor carriers”) have to register with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). One of the steps those companies have to take in registering is showing they have the financial ability to cover ANY damage they cause to the public in the course of operating, EVEN IF their insurance doesn’t cover that damage. Most often, they do this by purchasing an MCS-90 endorsement on their insurance policy from their insurance company.

With an MCS-90 endorsement, the insurance company agrees to be on the hook to pay pretty much ANY claim by a member of the public injured by a trucking company’s vehicle, EVEN IF the insurance company’s policy doesn’t cover it.

Why would an insurance company agree to that? Good question! There are two reasons: First, because the insurance company gets paid for the MCS-90 endorsement by the trucking company. And second, because the MCS-90 gives the insurance company a claim for reimbursement against the trucking company/motor carrier for any money it pays out under the MCS-90.

It’s not a foolproof deal for the insurance company, of course, because if the motor carrier goes bankrupt, the insurance company is out of luck. But for you, the member of the public, the MCS-90 provides an important backstop to make sure you have someone to turn to for compensation when you get injured in a trucking accident through no fault of your own.

There’s a Catch, Right? There’s Gotta Be a Catch.

Yeah, there’s a catch. A number of them, actually. But, in the grand scheme of things, none of them should affect you too much if you have good legal representation from an experienced truck accident injury lawyer.

The MCS-90 endorsement ONLY comes into play in very specific circumstances. First and foremost, the trucking company/motor carrier was operating in INTERSTATE commerce. That means it was doing business, in some form or fashion, across state lines. If the truck company only operates in Texas, MCS-90 doesn’t apply. In fact, the trucking company in that case probably doesn’t even carry an MCS-90 endorsement on its insurance policy.

If the trucking company/motor carrier does operate in interstate commerce, then for the MCS-90 “guarantee” of your damages to kick in, here’s what the situation has to be:

  • The motor carrier’s standard insurance policy doesn’t cover the accident;
  • The motor carrier is found responsible for the accident;
  • You, the injured person, don’t have anywhere else to turn for compensation; and
  • You are NOT an employee or independent contractor for the trucking company/motor carrier.

Also, depending on how much commercial auto insurance coverage the motor carrier carries, the MCS-90 has dollar-value minimums that might be less than the amount of money you could recover from the insurance company under the standard policy (although it is common for the MCS-90’s maximum amount to correspond to the maximum amount of the underlying policy).

Under the federal regulations governing MCS-90 endorsements, the liability minimums vary depending on what the truck is carrying:

  • $750,000 when the truck is carrying non-hazardous property;
  • $5,000,000 when the truck is carrying some kinds of hazardous substances;
  • $1,000,000 when the truck is carrying oil, hazardous waste, and other kinds of hazardous substances; and
  • $5,000,000 for small trucks carrying certain specific hazardous materials.

The reason the limit is so much lower for ordinary trucks carrying ordinary property is, first, because those trucks make up most of the commercial truck traffic on the road and if the limits were higher it might make it the MCS-90 endorsement too expensive, and second, because MCS-90 acts as a guarantee against environmental damage, too, which can be a lot worse when a truck carrying “hazardous” cargo gets into an accident than when a truck carrying ordinary cargo does.

I Want to Know More. Tell Me Some Nitty-Gritty Details of MCS-90.

Here goes.

MCS-90 has been part of the federal law since the early 1980s, when Congress passed The Federal Motor Carrier Act of 1980 and the executive branch passed regulations in accordance with it. Since 2000, the FMCSA has been the federal agency in charge of enforcing those federal regulations, which include registration of motor carriers and proof of “financial responsibility” (that is, that they have the ability to pay for damage they cause to the public in the course of doing business in interstate commerce).

MCS-90 endorsements are by far the most common way for motor carriers to prove their financial responsibility for damages resulting from truck accidents. There are, however, two other ways carriers can prove they have the dough to pay damages. One is a “surety” bond, and the other “self insurance.” There are potential complications involved with resorting to these types of security for damages when a motor carrier doesn’t have an MCS-90 endorsement on its insurance policy.

Unlike accidents the insurance policy covers, an insurance company typically does not have a legal obligation to pay for the attorneys for the motor carrier when an MCS-90 endorsement comes into play. It might be in the insurance company’s interest to do so, however, since whatever it pays under an MCS-90 it wants to recover from the motor carrier. The result of this is that the motor carrier that has to resort to its MCS-90 to pay damages in an accident might be slower than usual to get legal help, or might end up retaining a lawyer less familiar with truck accident issues than the lawyer who the insurance company might hire would.

Believe it or not, that poses challenges for your lawyer, too, so you need an experienced truck accident attorney on your side to help guide the process of recovering MCS-90 money.

Finally, MCS-90s can get tricky because they’re triggered by the insurance policy to which they’re attached when not covering an accident. Whether an insurance policy covers an accident usually comes down to two factors: What the policy says, and what state’s law applies to the policy. Even when commercial trucking insurance policies have more-or-less “standard” language, every state has its own laws about how courts can interpret and enforce insurance policies. It sometimes takes an experienced lawyer to figure out which law applies to a policy and how that law affects whether an accident is covered or not.

I Was Hurt in a Truck Accident. What Should I Do Now?

First, make sure you see a doctor and get the healthcare treatment you need. Not only is that the most important thing for you and your family, but the records of the treatment you receive might prove critical to showing how much money the person who caused the accident owes you.

Next, as soon as you are able, schedule an appointment with an experienced truck accident attorney to talk about your rights to compensation. We know, talking with a lawyer might not seem like a top priority, but as the information about MCS-90 endorsements above should tell you, truck accidents can be mighty complicated. The sooner an attorney can get started protecting your legal rights to compensation and investigating the factual and legal aspects of the accident, the better off you will be.

Oh, and here’s something you shouldn’t do: Don’t sign anything or agree to any settlement offer from any party to the case until you’ve talked to an attorney who is familiar with truck accident law. Trucking companies and their insurers might try to get you to take quick money to limit their exposure, particularly if the insurance company is worried that it is going to have to pay you under an MCS-90 endorsement and then chase its own customer for a reimbursement the customer probably can’t afford!

We know the money is tempting, but trust us: You will be significantly better off in the long run if you resist the temptation to take “easy” money by signing away your rights to much more money. TALK TO A LAWYER FIRST!

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