The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has paid particular attention to issues of commercial driver fatigue and overloaded vehicles, establishing more stringent guidelines for driver hours-of-service and restricting weight limits on large trucks.
But all of these efforts will mean little if companies that own these trucks don’t make sure they are in good working condition. Trucks that aren’t routinely inspected and meticulously maintained are at high of tractor-trailer accidents.
A recent employment lawsuit out of Illinois raises red flags about what may be secretly going on in the rest of the trucking industry. The primary issue inGaines v. K-Five Constr. Corp. was whether the plaintiff was fired from his job as a truck driver because he complained of several safety concerns regarding the vehicles he was asked to drive. His complaints were predicated on the belief that the condition of two trucks owned by his employer created an elevated risk of a crash, which could be injurious to both himself and others on the road.
The company, he said, wasn’t responsive to these concerns and terminated his employment several days after the complaints were made.
According to court documents released by the U.S. court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the plaintiff worked as a driver for a highway-paving construction firm, which owned several semi-dump trucks. The plaintiff had worked for the company for about five years, primarily driving those trucks, which hauled asphalt and other road-building materials to and from job sites.
Most of the time, the plaintiff was assigned to a singular truck, per the company’s safety policy.
However, one spring day in 2010, the supervisor assigned the plaintiff to a different truck. The plaintiff said he conducted a visual inspection of the truck and determined it was unsafe because of asphalt that was caked onto the tail pan. He noted that this violated the company’s own rules about keeping the tail pan clean, but it also resulted in pins not fully locking on the gate. The plaintiff was concerned this would result in the gate becoming unhinged during transit.
He informed his supervisor, who in turn personally scraped away some of the asphalt. However, several hard chunks still remained, and the plaintiff worried that in transit, they could come loose and cause serious injury to other drivers. He refused to drive the truck.
The supervisor then notified another, who then reassigned him to a different truck. That truck had rolled four years earlier, but reportedly had been repaired to the satisfaction of the state safety inspector two months earlier.
Later that day, the plaintiff was nearly involved in a wreck when the truck pulled hard to the left. The plaintiff immediately notified his supervisor and the truck maintenance supervisor of the incident.
The following day, the plaintiff was again assigned to that same truck. The plaintiff complained to the supervisor that the seat was bad, the door didn’t properly close, there was a steering problem and the truck had a faulty tarp. His supervisor refused to reassign him. The plaintiff recorded the problems with the vehicle in his daily driver’s report.
He was assigned again to the same, faulty truck the next day, even though his regular truck was now available. He noted the problems he had reported earlier remained unfixed. He was concerned for his safety and that of others on the road. He contacted his supervisor to discuss the truck’s condition. He requested either a different truck or that, alternatively, another driver test drive the one he believed was faulty.
The company sent over another driver. That driver concluded that while the truck did pull to the left, it was roadworthy. The plaintiff didn’t agree with that assessment, but he feared losing his job, so he simply agreed to drive the truck.
After his shift, he spoke with a company mechanic about the problems with the truck. The mechanic would later testify that he told the plaintiff the steering wheel was off-center, and that could have been caused either by someone taking it off and re-installing it improperly or somebody could have changed the drag-link and screwed it farther in or out from its original setting.
The plaintiff reported this to his supervisor – though he got the exact details wrong. The company stated that his misrepresentation and “false attribution” of the problem was grounds for his firing. The plaintiff maintains it was an honest mistake; he just wanted the problem fixed.
Plaintiff sued for retaliatory discharge and overtime wage violations.
The trial court initially issued a summary judgment in favor of the construction firm. However, the appellate court reversed, finding that the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, 49 U.S.C. 31105 was passed to encourage truck drivers and other industry employees to report safety concerns when they see them. Refusing to extend protection to workers who report safety problems just because those problems turn out not to be accurate, the court found, would undercut the legislature’s intention.
If you have been injured in an Asheville truck accident, contact the North Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.
Truckers Tire of Government Sleep Rules, Nov. 13, 2013, By Betsy Morris, The Wall Street Journal
Questions and Answers About Vehicle Size and Weight, Dec. 13, 2009, Freight Management and Operations, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
Gaines v. K-Five Constr. Corp., Jan. 3, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
More Blog Entries:
Filing a Complaint with the DOT: Unsafe Truckers, Aug. 30, 2013, Asheville Truck Accident Lawyer Blog