Trucking Law Enters Supreme Court Conversation

Kevin Anderson Employment and Labor, Transportation

The world of trucking and transportation law is somewhat specialized and apart from other, more traditional law practices. Much of transportation law is based around federal and state safety regulations, while litigation involving trucking companies is often based on The Carmack Amendment, an obscure law to all but those who practice trucking law. So it is interesting when trucking becomes part of the ongoing, national conversation about law.

That is exactly what happened in the least likely of places: a Supreme Court nomination hearing. The section of trucking law getting attention is whether a trucking company was justified in firing an employee who went against company instructions when he detached his tractor from a trailer with frozen brakes.

The firing was justified by the company on the grounds that the trucker should have stayed with the trucker as instructed. Because he did not, they denied him typically associated with termination without cause. The law they cited allows a trucker to go against company instructions only when an employee refuses to operate a vehicle out of safety concerns.

The case eventually went to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals where two out of the three judges there sided with the trucker. The lone dissenter was Judge Gorsuch, nominee for the Supreme Court. His dissent was based on the literal language of the law, that a trucker can only “refuse” to operate his vehicle because of safety concerns. 49 U.S.C. § 31105(a)(1)(B)(ii) . In this case the trucker did not refuse to operate his truck out of safety concerns, but in fact operated the truck out of safety concerns, and that is why he was fired.

Judicial Philosophies

This case and the exploitation of it by senators in D.C. quickly because internet gold, and story after story is being written about it. It is now known as the frozen trucker case. The reasons it is so compelling are twofold: one because it has a name like frozen trucker, and it seems like the judge turned a blind eye to the plight of a truck driver faced with the prospect of losing his job over freezing to death; and two because it puts on display the judicial philosophy of textualism.

The judicial philosophy of textualism advances the proposition that words have meaning, and judges can only look at the actual meaning of words in a law, and how different facts apply to those words. This approach does not allow for interpreting legislative intent of a law, or the majority will of the people, but looks only to the exactly what the law says. This philosophy is meant to prevent judges from inserting their own feelings into a ruling and being persuaded to rule in a way that twists what a law actually says. It puts the burden on the people and her representatives to create law.

Understanding Trucking Laws

This case was an interesting foray into the world of trucking laws, and fun because it made to the national stage. But trucking and transportation laws remain a little practiced area of the law, and should only be entrusted to the right kind of transportation law firm. At Anderson and Yamada, P.C., we have decades of experience practicing in this niche area of law, and look forward to helping your company. Contact us today.