While a great deal of the FMCSRs concern the motor carrier itself, the rules governing driver qualification, monitoring, and testing are also extensive. These regulations come into play before the driver candidate ever takes the wheel. At the employment application stage, a driver candidate must assist his prospective motor carrier employer with the information-gathering involved in the screening process, consent to the disclosure of drug and alcohol testing records, and otherwise prove themselves to be “road-worthy.”
Even after successfully gaining employment, the job description of a commercial motor vehicle (“CMV”) driver imposes yet more duties. Many of these duties must be fulfilled jointly by both the driver and the motor carrier. For example, drivers are required to carefully document their hours spent operating a CMV, and their employing motor carriers must monitor and enforce such “hours of service” rules. The regulations also impose other operational duties on drivers, such as required vehicle inspections, which, when not followed, can lead to tragedy. Unfortunately, history shows that all too often drivers and motor carriers fail to comply with the regulations to the letter, and tragedy is indeed an all too frequent result.
Because the operation of a tractor-trailer is inherently dangerous, especially when not performed with adequate care, CMV drivers are subject to some of the most rigorous and careful screenings of any employee in any industry. There are more similarities between the qualification process undergone by a truck driver and that undergone by an airline pilot than most people realize. The range of compliance with the qualification process is extreme, and in every case involving a CMV, the Driver Qualification, or “DQ” file, should be obtained as early as possible, reviewed for noncompliance, and independently verified for accuracy. A request for the preservation and production of the DQ file should be contained within the spoliation letter that should always be sent when a motor carrier or CMV driver is the target of a claim. The file itself is subject to a precise regulatory description. There is often a direct correlation between a flawed driver qualification process and the subsequent occurrence of a wreck involving that driver. Thus, a working understanding of this aspect of the operation of a trucking company is required to effectively pursue a claim.
General Qualification Requirements of Drivers
In order to be eligible to operate a commercial motor vehicle, the law requires that a driver-candidate:
- Be at least 21 years of age
- Speak and read English, at least well enough to converse in public, understand traffic signs and signals, respond to official inquiries, and make entries on reports and records
- Possess the requisite experience and/or training to safely operate a commercial vehicle
- Be physically qualified, as determined under the applicable rules
- Possess a currently valid commercial driver’s license, or “CDL,” issued by only one State or jurisdiction
- Prepare and furnish to the motor carrier a list of convictions for moving vehicle offenses
- Not be otherwise disqualified from the operation of a commercial motor vehicle under the applicable rules
- Pass a road test or present an operator’s license or certificate of road test
It is important to note that if any of the above criteria are not met, the motor carrier may not legally allow the driver candidate to operate its commercial motor vehicles. If they are all satisfied, the motor carrier may then attempt to qualify the driver candidate. However, meeting these criteria does not by itself automatically qualify a candidate. There are additional threshold regulations that must be met to successfully complete the driver qualification process.
Also, many motor carriers enact internal policies and procedures that, in some instances, are more stringent than the regulations. Such internal policies and procedures can take on a great deal of importance during litigation. For this and many other reasons, a motor carrier’s “driver’s handbook,” or whatever other name it may be called, should be obtained as early as possible in the claim process.
Pertinent Case Law
The failure to properly complete the application process and compare data obtained during the process that would have revealed fraudulent information the application may support a negligent hiring claim. In TXI Transp. Co. v. Hughes, the Texas Court of Appeals held that the standard for proximate cause was met where the evidence showed numerous failures by the motor carrier to comply with the qualification process, along with evidence that the motor carrier was unaware of the process itself. After its driver was subsequently involved in a wreck that killed three of its four occupants, including a woman pregnant with twins, their survivors and estates brought suit against the motor carrier for allowing him to operate a CMV.
At trial, the jury heard testimony from twenty-eight witnesses before finding that the motor carrier had negligently hired the driver. Judgment was entered against the motor carrier for over $22 million. On appeal, the court opined that a jury reasonably could have determined that the qualification process, if properly followed, would have disqualified the driver. The lengthy opinion discusses how the driver made numerous gross misrepresentations about his employment history and experience on his application, which the motor carrier had actual knowledge of based on information it received back from inquiries it made during the hiring process.
Further, just because a driver is qualified under the strict letter of the FMCSRs does not preclude the motor carrier’s exposure to punitive damages liability in a negligent entrustment case. In La Croix v. Spears Mattress Co., the federal district court for the Middle District of Georgia held that the fact that a driver was qualified under the regulations was simply a fact for consideration by the jury in considering whether the motor carrier negligently entrusted the driver with its CMV. In other words, proper qualification is not necessarily a “safe harbor.” This is a recurring theme in the regulations.