The trucking industry is one of moving large and varied amounts of commerce across the country. And despite all the regulation and legislation on how this is to be done, it remains an industry driven by the principles of capitalism. Indeed, one of those principles is the free flow of contracts and work from one firm to another.
While hiring and using different firms and truckers in the course of getting work done is common, there are risks and liabilities that must be understood. One of those risks is knowing who your contractors are, and what their driving history is. This is the lesson learned by a large trucking company currently embroiled in trucking accident litigation on the East Coast.
What Happened in This Case
This case, Ramos-Becerra v. Hatfield, Civil No. 1:14-CV-00917, involved an accident with an allegedly drunk truck driver and car driver on a busy Pennsylvania highway. According to the court’s opinion, the truck driver swerved off the road and rammed into two parked vehicles, injuring the plaintiff in the case with severe and life altering injuries. The injured driver brought a lawsuit against the driver, his company, and the national company using him as a contractor, and the case was removed to federal court.
The injured party here argued that the trucking company was negligent in hiring this driver as a contractor because of his long criminal history, including DWI in the state of Utah. The trucking company argued back saying he had a perfect safety score with the FMCSA, and was therefore qualified under federal law to work as a contractor. Further, the national trucking company argued that they should be absolved of liability on three grounds:
- as a contractor of freight services, state personal injury law is preempted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations;
- their independent contractor in this case was not their agent; and, alternatively,
- the trucker was on a personal trip at the time, and not in the employ of the national company.
The last two of these arguments fell by the wayside in the court’s opinion, but they dealt with whether FMCSR preempt state personal injury law at length, and is worth discussing here.
Preemption of State Law
The argument by the national trucking company about preemption is a creative one, but ultimately it failed to persuade the court. The company’s argument was that because the federal government issues safety standards on who can be hired as contractor to move freight, they preempted state personal injury law which is also designed to regulate and prevent negligent hiring of the dangerous truck drivers.
This argument, while compelling, did not carry the day for the national trucking company. The court correctly pointed out that preemption is not used in cases where the federal government does not fully occupy a field of law, such as personal injury, and where it is clear enabling federal legislation was created to avoid a conflict with state law on issues like these. Now the trucking company is likely on the hook for a devastating injury caused by a driver they did not investigate very well.
Avoiding mistakes like these is key for any trucking company. With the right legal counsel on your business practices you can do just that. At Anderson and Yamada, P.C. we have decades of experience guiding trucking companies through these kinds of traps and helping them move forward and grow. Contact us today.