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Semi-Truck Accident Lawyers Highlight Decision Limiting Vicarious Liability of Commercial Carriers

Our truck accident lawyers recognize that commercial carriers utilize many strategies to limit their exposure to liability for personal injuries and wrongful deaths caused by the drivers they engage in transporting cargo.  A common tactic involves using an “independent contractor” (IC) rather than employees to operate semi-trucks.  While a trucking company cannot necessarily avoid liability by taking this approach, this strategy can reduce the risk that the commercial carrier will be subject to vicarious liability.  Vicarious liability translates literally into the phrase “let the employer answer.”  This concept is important because it permits an employer to be held strictly liable for the negligence of the employee (driver) even without specific evidence of negligent acts or practices committed by the trucking company.  While other theories of liability might be available against a trucking company, vicarious liability often provides the easiest way to obtain a judgment against a commercial carrier, which typically will possess more extensive insurance coverage and assets to satisfy a judgment or settlement than the truck driver.

Trial Court Notes Florida Law Permits Designation of ICs as Employees

Our Florida semi-truck accident lawyers often see cases like the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal decision, Peninsula Logistics, Inc. v. Erb, which demonstrates the importance and complexity involving a court’s determination of whether a truck driver is an employee or IC.  This case involved a crash between the plaintiff’s vehicle and a semi-truck owned by a company (O & L Transport) other than the one that retained the driver as an IC.  Although the truck driver was not directly employed by the trucking company, the trial judge ruled that the trucking company could be vicariously liable for the driver’s negligence because it fell within the definition of an “employer” under applicable trucking regulations.  At trial, the jury returned a favorable verdict for the plaintiffs.

Fifth District Finds Trucking Company Did Not Qualify as Employer

The trucking company appealed on the theory that it did not meet the definition of an employer under applicable law and trucking regulations.  The Fifth District first considered Section 316.302(1)(b) of the Florida Statutes which essentially makes commercial carriers that operate strictly within the state (intrastate) subject to federal laws and regulations for interstate trucking (i.e. across state lines).  One such regulation at the time defined an employee as “any person engaged in a business…who owns or leases a commercial vehicle…or assigns employees to operate it ….”  The regulation also indicates that subject to this provision an IC is included under the definition of an employee.  However, the Fifth District emphasized that the trucking company did not own or lease the vehicle, which was the sole property of O & L Transport.

While the plaintiffs contended that the trucking company “assigned” the job, the court rejected this analysis.  The court concluded that the phrase “assigns employees to operate it” refers to the assignment of the vehicle, not the job.  Because the trucking company had no legal right to “assign” use of the truck to the driver, the Fifth District found that the trucking company could not be vicariously liable since the driver did not qualify as an employee under the applicable statutes and regulations.  Therefore, the trial court’s decision was reversed.  The trucking company received a directed verdict, so the commercial carrier could not be held liable for the injuries suffered by the plaintiffs. Admittedly, this outcome does not mean that the plaintiffs could not recover damages.  However, a judgment of liability and determination of damages does not have value unless there are viable defendants with insurance coverage and assets to compensate the plaintiffs.  Between an independent truck driver like the one in this case and a large trucking company, the party most able to pay the full amount of damages is likely to be the commercial carrier.

If you have been injured or have lost a loved one in a crash caused by a negligent truck driver, our South Florida truck accident lawyers at Greenberg, Stone & Urbano offer the assistance you need to obtain the results you desire.  With over 130 collective years of experience representing policyholders across South Florida, our firm provides legal representation of unmatched excellence.  Contact our firm as soon as possible to start on the road to protecting your legal rights.  Our firm received an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell and was ranked as a top firm in South Florida by the Miami Herald.   Put our Florida semi-truck accident lawyers to work on your case.  Call us at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 or you can visit our website to schedule your initial consultation.

 

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