CMV Operations: Pertinent Case Law
As was just mentioned, most of the cases involving operation regulations deal with claims for wrongful discharge brought by drivers against their employers/motor carriers as a result of their being terminated for refusing to drive while tired or sick.
Gaibis v. Werner Continental, Inc.
Many of these cases touch on questions about a motor carrier’s dispatch policies, rest policies, and the like. These examples give some insight into the motor carrier’s manner of complying (or not complying) with the prohibition against dispatching a fatigued driver. For example, in Gaibis v. Werner Continental, Inc., a driver contended he was dispatched while fatigued and would be penalized if he refused the trip or could not be reached when a dispatch came up.
Yellow Freight Systems v. Reich
The case of Yellow Freight Systems v. Reich also includes a detailed discussion of the safety concerns sought to be addressed in the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), which was enacted to “combat the increasing number of deaths, injuries and property damage due to commercial motor vehicle accidents on America’s highways.” The STAA “prohibits discipline of trucking employees who raise violations of CMV rules on the part of trucking companies,” and prohibits discipline of drivers who refuse to operate their vehicles under dangerous or illegal conditions. The driver fatigue rule is explicitly recognized as a means of carrying out the goals of the STAA.
Also at issue in the Gaibis cited above was that the motor carrier required its drivers to stand by their home phones awaiting dispatch, which they were required to log as “off-duty” time. Drivers could be disciplined if they were unavailable for the phone-delivered dispatch, with sanctions that could culminate in their dismissal from employment. A dispatch by phone could come “at any time after the mandated rest period,” a system the court found tended “to produce driver fatigue,” with the given example of a driver who stays up late awaiting a dispatch call, or is awakened in his sleep by one. As the court noted, “[t]he evidence is overwhelming that the unpredictable telephone dispatch system . . . inevitably results in the dispatch of fatigued drivers.”
The court went on to note that Werner’s argument that it had no knowledge of whether drivers were fatigued at the time they reported for dispatch was “not convincing.” It also observed that drivers could not “book off,” that is, remove themselves from the dispatch roll, even though Werner knew from experience such a system tended to result in fatigued drivers. Further, the court held that regulation does not adopt a “knowingly permit” standard, but rather, it simply states that “a motor carrier shall not require or permit” a fatigued driver to operate a CMV. Based on its many findings, the court opined that Werner in fact violated both the hours of service and fatigue regulations, and granted the drivers’ their requested relief. Although this opinion was later vacated by the Third Circuit, which found the drivers stated no private cause of action. The Gaibis opinion’s insight into a motor carrier’s dispatch policies, and the court’s finding that this regulation does not require a “knowing” dispatch of a fatigued driver by a motor carrier for a violation to exist, remain valuable insights.
J.B. Hunt & Garrett v. Albright
Another valuable lesson gleaned from the employee claim cases concerns the admissions motor carriers are happy to make in order to avoid the employee’s claims. These statements may he helpful in a later claim against the motor carrier, and given that some of the major motor carriers have litigated these issues, it is worthwhile to do legal research concerning your defendant’s employment practices. In this regard, statements made by J.B. Hunt Transportation in defending a discrimination complaint filed by the EEOC are worth a mention. Hunt defended a list of drugs and medications it used to determine whether to hire an over the road driver, in the face of a claim by the EEOC that use of the list constituted discrimination in violation of the ADA. In an effort to show how important it is to carefully screen drivers as J.B. Hunt desired, it offered up some comments, on the record, which the court then duly noted in the opinion:
According to Hunt, its OTR [over-the-road] drivers run irregular routes and are particularly subject to a variety of adverse work-related conditions such as sleep deprivation, irregular work and rest cycles, weather extremes, long driving periods, irregular meals, long layovers, tight delivery schedules, en route delays, night driving, accumulated fatigue, stress and extended periods of loud noise and vibrations. Because of the irregular routes and schedules associated with Hunt’s truckload carrier operation, safety concerns are heightened. Certainly, a case against J.B. Hunt on a fatigue issue might well warrant a look at the actual brief it filed in this matter.
Punitive damages may arise as a result of driving fatigued or putting a fatigued driver on the road. These may be against the driver, the motor carrier or both when a fatigued driver operates a CMV. The court found a jury question on punitive damages based upon, inter alia, fatigue evidence, when it denied the defendant’s summary judgment motions in the two separate appeals that arose in Garrett v. Albright. These companion rulings addressed the drivers’ and then the motor carrier’s motions for summary judgment in a case involving four fatalities and multiple injured people. Careful discovery revealed many regulatory violations and untruthful statements/documents by the driver and, possibly, the motor carrier. These included examples such as the driver testifying he slept a certain period of time when his cell phone records revealed numerous lengthy calls while he was “sleeping” and the motor carrier, failing to follow its own policy of withholding paychecks when logs were not turned in. The defendant driver also claimed he told the defendant motor carrier about his use of rather extensive prescription medication, which the court noted would entitle a jury, if it wished, to find the motor carrier should not have permitted him to drive. However, a significant aspect of the court’s analysis in finding punitive damages a jury question was the evidence of driver fatigue. The case also presents a good example of how far a thorough effort at discovery can take a case with catastrophic damages.
Came v. Micou
Likewise in Came v. Micou, the court permitted plaintiff to proceed with punitive damages to a jury based on a claim, in part, that the motor carrier failed to properly supervise a CMV driver so that he drove while fatigued. There, in response to defendant’s summary judgment motion, the plaintiff provided expert reports which concluded that the driver had exceeded his hours of service, falsified his logs, that the motor carrier failed to have in place a system to verify hours of service and that the motor carrier knew hours of service were a problem: “[The motor carrier] had the ability to verify their drivers’ reported hours of service, rather they merely conducted face audits of logs which was an insufficient method to identify and prevent repeated hours of service violations”.
This evidence was augmented by that of a driver fatigue expert who opined that the driver fell into a “micro sleep” just before the accident, and that this condition could have been avoided had the driver properly complied with hours of service regulations. The court found a jury question whether the evidence constituted “reckless indifference” sufficient to award punitive damages. The court found it important that the driver “testified that he was aware that the hours of service regulations were in place to prevent drivers from falling asleep behind the wheel and causing death or injury.”
Parker v. R&L Carriers, Inc.
However, a trial court was affirmed after refusing to charge of that regulation in Parker v. R&L Carriers, Inc. In this fatal crash, either the motor carrier driver ran a red light and struck plaintiff’s decedent or vice versa. At trial plaintiff’s counsel argued the driver was fatigued in violation of regulation, and requested a jury charge of that regulation, which was denied. Appealing the defense verdict the plaintiff argued the evidence raised the inference that the driver was fatigued, and operated in violation of regulation, and was thus negligent per se. Affirming the verdict, the Georgia Court of Appeals found this argument ignored the proximate cause of the collision, which was the question whether the driver ran the red light.
The court observed that the fatigue “may have explained his failure to yield…but whether his fatigue violated a federal regulation is irrelevant.” Of course, under this analysis, the question whether the driver was drunk out of his mind would likewise be irrelevant– the only question would be whether he ran the light.