What Is a Chameleon Trucking Company and How Does It Keep Doing Dangerous Stuff?
Safety records matter, especially in the trucking industry in which 80,000 vehicles share the highway with your family and mine. If a trucking company builds a deplorable safety record there can be consequences in terms of fines, suspension, loss of operating authority, insurance rates, etc.
So what happens when a persistently unsafe trucking company encounters the natural and logical consequences of unsafe operation?
Too often in our law practice, we see cases involving newly authorized trucking companies with largely the same officers, owners, equipment and personnel as an earlier company that had a bad record. “Reincarnated” carriers, also known as “chameleon carriers,” are companies that artificially shut down their business and resurrect operations as a new legal entity. Many companies fly under the radar this way to cleanse themselves of regulatory compliance and public safety penalties that fall under the FMCSA’s oversight.
Kelly Linhart, a professional truck driver, stopped on the side of the road to do a routine truck inspection in September 2008. Moments later, the father of four lay dead on the road. He was struck and killed by another trucker who veered out of his lane, according to the police report.
According to the Linhart’s family attorney, my friend Michael Leizerman in Ohio, the truck driver admitted that he fell asleep behind the wheel, ran off the road, and ran over Kelly Linhart. In a deposition, Clarey admitted to being under the influence of methamphetamine at the time of the crash and to previous criminal record for methamphetamine and marijuana. Clarey pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and driving under the influence of intoxicants. According to court documents, he was sentenced to 40 months.
You might be wondering how a driver with a drug history could be behind the wheel of a commercial vehicle. Leizerman said Clarey’s employer, Forrest Rangeloff, was operating as a “chameleon carrier.”
“I see too often in this case and other cases that I handle where the owner of the company simply closes down, refuses to pay the fines, and starts another company,” Leizerman said.
In a deposition, Rangleoff said he opened a new trucking company because he could not get a satisfactory rating, which is something Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives to companies to show they are in compliance with regulations.
Rangeloff’s second company, Range Transportation, received a conditional rating, a warning that improvement was needed. Even after the crash that killed Linhart, Rangeloff was able to file for a new trucking company, which he called Range-It Express. That company was later shut down for not paying fines, according to motor carrier agency’s website.
According to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) most recent report, there were 1,136 new applicants in 2010 alone that were suspected chameleon carriers. The GAO found that 18 percent of suspected chameleon carriers were involved in severe accidents, like the crash that killed Linhart, compared with 6 percent of non-chameleon carriers.
“I see them disproportionately being involved in deaths and significant injuries,” Leizerman said.
As of the March 2012 report, the GAO said federal motor carrier agency was screening only bus companies and moving companies, 2 percent of new applicants, to make sure they didn’t have any problem records.
“What we have done is created a system we call vetting. Are there patterns in this company’s operations that show they actually are sharing an address with a company we’ve shut down before?” said FMCSA chief Anne Ferro, who is stepping down on August 25.
Ferro also said there are a series of penalties for chameleon carriers, including the entire company being shut down.
Ken Shigley is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia and currently chair-elect of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section. Author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice, he is a board certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy.