“Statutory employee” rules make trucking companies always responsible for independent contractor truck drivers
During the first half of the twentieth-century, interstate motor carriers attempted to immunize themselves from liability for negligent drivers by hiring inadequately insured, risky trucks and their drivers – like C&C and the Carnleys in this case. The companies would classify the drivers who operated the trucks as "independent contractors," and disclaim any association when those uninsured trucks and drivers caused injury to the general public. See, e.g., White v. Excalibur Insurance Company, 599 F.2d 50, 52 (5th Cir.1979); Morris v. JTM Materials, Inc., 78 S.W.3d 28, 37 (Tex.App.-Fort Worth 2002).
To address this problem, Congress amended the Motor Common Carrier Act in 1956 to require that a motor carrier assume "full direction and control" of leased vehicles in order to prevent trucking companies from eluding liability by engaging in such evasive "independent contractor" relationships. The federal and state filing requirements were designed to provide a minimal form of coverage for the general public when insolvent and uninsured actors injured them. See White, 599 F.2d at 53 ("Congress wished to impose on lessee-carriers responsibility for the operation of leased vehicles ‘as if they were the owners of such vehicles." ‘) (citing 49 U.S.C. § 304(e)(2), now codified at 49 U.S.C. § 11107(a)(4)). "Because the carrier now has both a legal right and duty to control vehicles operated for its benefit, the employees of the vehicle-lessor are deemed statutory employees of the lessee-carrier to the extent necessary to insure the carrier’s responsibility for the public safety just as if the lessee-carrier were the owner of the vehicles." Id. (citing Simmons v. King, 478 F.2d 857, 867 (5th Cir.1973)).
As a result of the regulatory authority granted in the Act, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations require a certificated interstate carrier who leases equipment to enter into a written lease with the equipment owner providing that the carrier-lessee shall have exclusive possession, control, and use of the equipment, and shall assume complete responsibility for the operation of the equipment, for the duration of the lease. 49 C.F.R. §§ 376.11-.12. This FMCSR was enacted to protect the public by providing it with financially responsible carriers, Indiana Refrigerator Lines, Inc. v. Dalton, 516 F.2d 795, 796 (6th Cir.1975), and by preventing a carrier from "evad[ing] its responsibility to the public by obtaining its trucks through leasing arrangements rather than ownership and employment of drivers." Toomer v. United Resin Adhesives, Inc., 652 F.Supp. 219, 229 (N.D.Ill.,1986).
The FMCSR requires a carrier lessee to execute a written lease, to clearly identify the vehicle as in the employ of the carrier, and to observe other formalities evidencing its control over the vehicle and its responsibility for its actions, including displaying the carrier’s placard. 49 C.F.R. § 1057.11(a)-(d). The majority of authorities concerning such cases involving the liability of carrier-lessees holds that when a carrier-lessee permits a lessor-driver to use its authority without compliance with Federal Motor Carrier Safety regulations, it is responsible for injuries caused by the lessor-driver, even if the lessor-driver was embarked on an undertaking of his own while using the carrier-lessee’s authority. Rodriguez v. Ager, 705 F.2d 1229 (10th Cir., 1983); Carolina Cas. Ins. Co. v. Insurance Co. of North America, 595 F.2d 128 (3rd Cir., 1979); Wellman v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 496 F.2d 131 (8th Cir., 1974); Rediehs Express, Inc. v. Maple, 491 N.E.2d 1006 (Ind.App.,1986); Kreider Truck Service, Inc. v. Augustine, 76 Ill.2d 535, 311 Ill.Dec. 802, 394 N.E.2d 1179 (1979); Cox v. Bond Transp., Inc., 53 N.J. 186, 249 A.2d 579 (1969).
Therefore, when a member of the public is injured by the negligence of the driver of leased commercial motor vehicle, under federal law the motor carrier bears responsibility to the injured person for the negligence of the commercial motor vehicle driver. Dove v. National Freight, Inc., 138 Ga.App. 114, 225 S.E.2d 477 (Ga.App. 1976); Judy v. Tri-State Motor Transit Co., 844 F.2d 1496, 1051 (11th Cir. 1988); Radman v. Jones Motor Co., Inc., 914 F.Supp. 1193, 1198 (W.D.Pa. 1996). The Motor Carrier Act creates “an irrebuttable statutory employment relationship between [a] driver and the carrier-lessee.” Holliday v. Epperson, No. 1:02-CV-1030-T, 2003 WL 2340746, at *3 (W.D.Tenn. Aug.26, 2003); Gilstorff v. Top Line Express, Inc., No. 96-3081, 1997 WL 14378, at *2 n. 6 (6th Cir. Jan.14, 1997) (suggesting that the Sixth Circuit adopts this interpretation of ICC regulations); Wyckoff Trucking, Inc. v. Marsh Brothers Trucking Service, 58 Ohio St.3d 261, 569 N.E.2d 1049, 1053 (Ohio 1991) (adopting the “doctrine of statutory employment” and holding that “if the driver is negligent, the carrier-lessee is liable as a matter of law for accidents that occur while a lease is still in effect???”). See also Baker v. Roberts Express, Inc., 800 F.Supp. 1571, 1574 (S.D.Ohio 1992) (adopting the Ohio Supreme Court’s interpretation of ICC regulations in Wyckoff Trucking ).
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations preempt conflicting state laws, including “independent contractor” laws. “Th[e] Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof …, shall be the supreme Law of the Land….” U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. “Federal regulations have no less pre-emptive effect than federal statutes.” Fidelity Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass’n v. de la Cuesta, 458 U.S. 141, 153, 102 S.Ct. 3014, 3022, 73 L.Ed.2d 664 (1982). See also Hillsborough County v. Automated Medical Laboratories, Inc., 471 U.S. 707, 713, 105 S.Ct. 2371, 2375, 85 L.Ed.2d 714 (1985)("state laws can be preempted by federal regulations as well as by federal statutes"). A state law that sets a lower standard for protection of public safety than one expressed or implied by the FMCSR is preempted. Cf., Yellow Freight System, Inc. v. Amestoy, 736 F.Supp. 44 (D.Vt., 1990), federal regulations requiring the trucking company to bear financial responsibility for operation of trucks under their authority preempt contradictory state laws of agency. See, e.g., Empire Fire and Marine Insurance Co. v. Truck Insurance Exchange, 462 So. 2d 76 (Fla. App. 1985); A.C. v. Roadrunner Trucking, Inc, 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7251 (C.D.Utah 1993); Conlee v. George Transfer, Inc., 1995 Me. Super. LEXIS 206 (1995); Price v. Westmoreland, 727 F.2d 494 (5th Cir., 1984); Proctor v. Colonial Refrigerated Transportation, Inc., 494 F.2d 89 (1974); Simmons v. King, 478 F.2d 857, 867 (5th Cir. 1973); see also, Wellman v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 496 F.2d 131, 136 (8th Cir. 1974); Mellon Nat’l Bank & Trust Co. v. Sophie Lines, Inc., 289 F.2d 473, 477 (3rd Cir. 1961). Therefore state laws and court decisions on independent contractor status, decided without reference to the federal Motor Carrier Act or Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations are inapplicable. See., e.g., Montgomery Trucking Co., Inc. v. Black, 231 Ga. 211, 200 S.E.2d 882 (Ga. Oct 05, 1973); Dove v. National Freight, Inc., 138 Ga.App. 114, 225 S.E.2d 477 (Ga.App. Mar 01, 1976); Flowers v. U. S. S. Agri-Chemicals, 139 Ga.App. 430, 228 S.E.2d 392 (1976).
The Shigley Law Firm represents plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases statewide in Georgia, and in other states subject to the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules in each state. Ken Shigley was designated as a "SuperLawyer" in Atlanta Magazine and one of the "Legal Elite" in Georgia Trend Magazine. He is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, Chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute and former chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute. He particularly focuses on cases arising from truck wrecks and accidents (tractor trailers truck wrecks, semi truck wrecks,18 wheeler truck wrecks, big rig truck wrecks, log truck wrecks, dump truck wrecks.