Vargas v. FMI, Inc. – Graves Amendment Protection Not Granted to Motor Carrier

The “Graves Amendment,” 49 U.S.C. 30106(a) was passed by the federal legislature several years ago to protect owners of rental car companies from vicarious liability for negligence of their customer/drivers.
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However, since it’s introduction, many trucking companies have attempted to utilize the law for their own purposes. The structure of many motor carriers lends itself to this, as trucks or trailers owned by one company may be operated by another or even independent contractor drivers.

But many courts are rejecting this argument, finding it is not only against the intent of the legislature, but further that existing laws require commercial trucking companies and trailer owners to have control of and be responsible for such vehicles. This is specifically stated in 49 U.S.C. 14102, with the express purpose of protecting the public from negligent conduct “of the often judgement-proof truck lessor operations.”

This was the situation in the recent case of Vargas v. FMI, Inc. before the California Court of Appeals, Second Appellate District, Division Three. Defendants – the motor carrier and trailer owner – argued protection under the Graves Amendment for the allegedly tortious conduct of a driver resulting in injury.

According to court records, plaintiff was one half of a two-man driving team hired to drive a tractor-trailer across the country. At the time of the accident, plaintiff was in the sleeper berth of the trailer, while the other man was at the wheel when he reportedly nodded off and lost control. The tractor-trailer rolled over, and plaintiff sustained injuries.

Plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against two entities – the federally-licensed motor carrier that operated a shipping distribution center and the owner/operator contractor that leased its tractors for this purpose.

For this trip, the two drivers were traveling from California to New Jersey. Four hours into the drive, the crash occurred.

Plaintiff sustained numerous injuries, and at the time of his complaint, had racked up more than $50,000 in medical bills. Plaintiff sued defendants for driver’s negligence under the terms of vicarious liability and negligence, arguing the companies failed to properly train, monitor and supervise driver.

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing plaintiff was an independent contractor – not an employee – and therefore they owed no duty to him to provide a safe workplace. Plaintiff conceded he was an independent contractor, but argued his negligence claim was proper because federal motor carriers cannot delegate responsibility to the public for injuries caused by independent contractor drivers. Accordingly, the carrier would be liable to public for the negligence of drivers – including the one at the wheel at the time of this crash. Plaintiff further argued the trailer owner as liable because driver was a permissive user of owner’s truck.

There was at least $2 million in commercial liability policy payouts on the line. Trial court granted summary judgment to defendants.

But that finding was reversed on appeal when appellate court ruled defendant failed to meet its burden of proof to show summary judgment was warranted. Rather, there was sufficient evidence under federal motor carrier law that defendants owed a duty to safely control and operate the trucks it used in the course of business. The whole purpose of the law is to ensure interstate motor carriers and the owners of the trucks used would be fully responsible for the maintenance and operation of leased equipment and supervision of borrowed drivers. This ultimately gives the public redress in the event of injury.

Defendants failed to show as a matter of law why this law would not be applicable.

Our Charlotte truck accident lawyers know that because of the way trucking contracts are drafted, the issue of liability can be extremely complex. This is why injured parties must rely on attorneys with experience when seeking compensation for injuries.

Contact the North Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Vargas v. FMI, Inc., Jan. 23, 2015, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate district, Division Three

More Blog Entries:
Guarino v. Allstate Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. – Underinsured Motorist Benefits Dispute, Jan. 22, 2015, Charlotte Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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