What is the law in Georgia on negligent entrustment of a commercial motor vehicle?

In catastrophic truck crashes that kill or catastrophically injury innocent people, the root cause of the tragedy is often not the momentary carelessness of a truck driver. Rather, the root cause is very often the systemic mismanagement by a company that puts behind the wheel of an 80,000 bomb a person who never should have been driving it. The driver may be a good guy who because inadequate training or experience, bad driving record, or physical incapacity was not well-fitted for the job. That can result in a claim for negligent entrustment.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Georgia recognized that Georgia law of negligent entrustment follows the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 390, without reservation or exception. Restatement § 390 provides:

One who supplies directly or through a third person a chattel for the use of another whom the supplier knows or has reason to know to be likely because of his youth, inexperience, or otherwise, to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself and others whom the supplier should expect to share in or be endangered by its use, is subject to liability for physical harm resulting to them.

Zaldivar v. Prickett, 297 Ga. 589, 602-03, 774 S.E.2d 688, 697 (2015), et cit. (Majority opinion by Justice Blackwell, dissent by Justice Benham on apportionment issue only).

A 1997 Court of Appeals decision said that the Georgia rule on negligent entrustment is narrower than the Restatement rule, requiring actual rather constructive knowledge. Carolina Cable Contractors, Inc. v. Hattaway, 226 Ga.App. 413, 416 (4), 487 S.E.2d 53 (1997)(Smith, J.) (physical precedent only). However, because that decision is “physical precedent only” it is not binding on lower courts.

Moreover, circumstantial evidence can be used to prove actual knowledge. Carolina Cable, 226 Ga. App. at 416-17.  The direct evidence of degrees of actual knowledge is circumstantial evidence from which jurors may reasonably infer a greater degree of actual knowledge than that to which a trucking company admits.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, 49 CFR § 391.23, requires interstate motor carriers to investigate the driving background of driver applicants. “The investigation may consist of personal interviews, telephone interviews, letters, or any other method for investigating that the carrier deems appropriate.” 49 CFR § 391.23 (c)(2). The minimum required includes requests for information to prior employers and checking state motor vehicle records.

However, that is only the “minimum” required. 49 CFR § 391.23(d). “By the regulations’ own terms, employers may investigate driver employment histories and driving records beyond the minimum standards established by the regulations themselves. The trucking industry’s needs and concerns involving drivers extend to a range of past accidents, incidents, mishaps, occurrences and events well beyond those encompassed by § 390.5.” Cassara v. DAC Services, Inc., 276 F.3d 1210, 1225 (10th Cir., 2002) It is a floor not a ceiling, for checking driver backgrounds. If a motor carrier has actual knowledge of a collision within the previous three years that is not revealed in those records, a duty arises to check the accuracy of the driver applicant’s self-serving description of the incident.

A Plaintiff may get to a jury “by showing that an employer had actual knowledge of numerous and serious violations on its driver’s record, or, at the very least, when the employer has flouted a legal duty to check a record showing such violations.” Mastec North America, Inc. v. Wilson, 325 Ga.App. 863, 755 S.E.2d 257, 259-60 (2014); Western Indus. v. Poole, 280 Ga.App. 378, 380(1), 634 S.E.2d 118 (2006); Smith v. Tommy Roberts Trucking Co., 209 Ga.App. 826, 829–830(3), 435 S.E.2d 54 (1993).

Circumstantial evidence of knowledge of such factors of incompetency is sufficient to create a question of fact for jury determination on the issue of negligent entrustment. It is sufficient to show knowledge on the part of the entruster by presenting facts from which it could reasonably be inferred that the entruster knew of the driver’s poor driving habits or skills. CGL Facility Management, LLC v. Wiley, 328 Ga. App. 727, 732-33 (2), 760 S.E.2d 251 (2014) (allowing the claim to go to the jury because there was a question of fact where the employer could have had knowledge of the driver’s incompetence based on prior incidents); Dougherty Equipment Co., 327 Ga.App. 434, 439(2), 757 S.E.2d 885 (2014); Ed Sherwood Chevrolet v. McAuley, 164 Ga.App. 798, 802(1), 298 S.E.2d 565 (1982). Cf., Gill Plumbing Co., Inc. v. Macon, 187 Ga.App. 481, 483 (2) 370 S.E.2d 657, 659 (1988)(sufficient to show facts from which knowledge of driver’s poor driving habits or skills could be inferred).

Even if any one of these factors standing alone might be enough to create a jury question on negligent entrustment, the overlapping combination of several pertinent factors may be sufficient to authorize jurors to rationally conclude that a trucking company was aware that it was unsafe to entrust an employee to operate a large truck, at least without further training or in some instances evaluation of sleep disorders.

Such claims are extremely fact-sensitive and must be evaluated in light of the specific combination of facts in each case.

If you have questions about a serious injury or wrongful death case in Georgia, contact us at 404-253-7862.


 

Ken Shigley is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia, past chair of the State Bar’s Tort & Insurance Practice Section, past chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute, past chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section, and a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys. He is lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (Thomson Reuters West, 2010-2018). His law practice is focused on catastrophic injury and wrongful death including those arising from commercial trucking accidents and those involving brainneckbackspinal cordamputation and burn injuries. He is licensed to practice law in Georgia. Representation of clients in others states, which possible, can be undertaken only in strict compliance with the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules of the other state.