Given the massive size and weight disparity between a tractor-trailer combination and a passenger car, collisions between a big-rig and a car tend to cause severe injury to occupants of the automobile. Because trucking companies recognize their drivers log enough hours on the road that there is a high probability they will be involved in a trucking accident, commercial carriers prepare for future litigation in anticipation of future lawsuits. These strategies include on-call rapid crash response teams, extensive litigation resources, and creative use of independent contractor relationships. Our experienced semi-truck accident lawyers are familiar with these tactics and employ appropriate strategies for obtaining successful outcomes in trucking accident injury lawsuits. In this blog post, we examine a court decision where an appellate court rejects a trucking company’s attempt to use independent contractor status to shield itself from liability.
In Vargas v. FMI, Inc., the plaintiff was in the sleeper berth when the truck driver lost control of the tractor-trailer before it rolled over. The plaintiff suffered serious injuries and sued the truck driver for negligence, as well as the motor carrier, the tractor owner, and the trailer owner based on the theory of vicarious liability. The plaintiff contended that the motor carrier/tractor owner and owner of the trailer were vicariously liable for the negligence of the truck driver. The motor carrier defended based on the contention that it could not be liable for the truck driver negligence because he was an independent contractor. The trial court accepted the implicit position of the motor carrier that they delegated any duty they owed the contractor and contractor’s employees to provide workplace safety. The trial court ruled in favor of the defendants finding that the driver’s independent contractor status meant the motor carrier and the owner of the trailer were not subject to vicarious liability of the driver.
On appeal, the California court noted that there are two common exceptions to the general rule that an employee that retains an independent contractor is not liable to third parties for injuries caused by the contractor. The first exception is the peculiar risk doctrine which applies when the work is especially dangerous. The policy grounds for this exception involves ensuring that injury victims are compensated and that the financial risk of such activity is born by the party who financially benefits. The other exception the court noted is referred to as the nondelegable duty doctrine. The nondelegable duty doctrine prevents a party responsible for causing injury from circumventing liability by contending the duty was delegated to an independent contractor.
The appellate court considered 428 of the Restatement Second of Torts which carves out a special rule for individuals and corporations operating under a franchise granted by a government authority. The individual or corporation can be liable for the negligence of a contractor while engaged in conduct that poses an unreasonable risk of harm to others. The appellate court reversed the trial judge noting that under the 2nd Restatement of Torts, Section 428 the motor carriers operated the tractor under a public franchise/license granted by the Federal Motor Carrier Act (FMCA). Section 428 requires employers operating under a public franchise/license to obey statutory requirements to promote public safety. The court reasoned that if these statutory duties could be delegated, independent contractor status could be used to negate the effectiveness of public licensing.
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Although this court found that the applicability of the FMCA provided a basis for finding an individual or company that hired an independent contractor as a driver liable for injuries to another, this strategy often is used by trucking companies. Our Miami trucking accident injury attorneys at Greenberg, Stone & Urbano offer the assistance you need to pursue the results you desire. For over 130 collective years, our firm has assisted accident victims in personal injury and wrongful death actions across South Florida. We seek to obtain compensation for your tangible and intangible damages, including medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more. Our skill and dedication have earned us an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell and recognition as one of South Florida’s top firms by the Miami Herald. Call us at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 or visit our website to schedule your initial consultation.