Commercial Driver’s License: Observations & Case Law


Most cases involving trucks will obviously involve a CDL holder. However, knowing early on if you face an exception to the requirement of a CDL will assist you in posturing the case effectively. For example, it is certainly worth exploring whether the driver of a large RV involved in a crash is from a state that has decided to required such drivers to possess a CDL.
Because the requirement of a CDL applies to operation of a commercial motor vehicle, keep in mind the basic definition of a CMV. Generally, a CMV is any vehicle weighing 26,001 pounds or more, any vehicle designed to transport sixteen or more passengers, or any vehicle used to transport hazardous materials (as they are defined in the rule).
Consider whether there is a basis for a direct claim against the motor carrier for negligent entrustment when it has allowed an individual who does not possess a CDL to drive a big rig. If there is any evidence the driver failed to operate the truck properly, it may be possible to show the motor carrier was directly negligent in permitting an incompetent driver, evidenced at least in part by the absence of proper license, to get behind the wheel.

Pertinent Case Law

A multi-million dollar award for personal injuries was upheld in a case involving a moving van driver who, because of vision problems, was unable to obtain a CDL. N. Amer. Van Lines v. Emmons, 50 S.W.3d 103 (Tx. App. Beaumont 2001). The motor carrier argued, inter alia, that no CDL was required because the transportation was purely intrastate, and did not cross state lines. The court disagreed, finding that the federal regulations require, that a CDL holder operate the vehicle during an intrastate move. The court specifically found that both the CDL and hours-of-service requirements applied to the driver, and noted that the federal regulations are “generally applicable to intrastate moves,” and likewise observed that Texas, like so many states, has adopted the FMCSR and thus specifically applied them to intrastate operation of CMV. (Georgia regulation adopting FMCSR to intrastate operations) Thus, the jury was properly charged on the violation of this regulation by the motor carrier’s use of a driver who had such poor vision that he could not obtain a CDL.
It is generally the law that the absence of a valid driver’s license is not considered to be the proximate cause of a motor vehicle accident. Xpress Cargo Sys., Inc. v. McMath, 225 Ga. App. 32, 481 S.E.2d 885, 886 (1997); Tellez v. Saban, 188 Ariz. 165, 933 P.2d 1233 (1996); . See. R.P. Davis, Annotation “Lack of proper automobile registration or operator’s license as evidence of operator’s negligence” 29 A.L.R.2d 963 (1953); Courts have frequently found proximate cause missing between the evidence of an unlicensed driver and the occurrence of the accident. Schofield v. Hertz Corp., 201 Ga. App. 830, 412 S.E.2d 853 (1992); But see, Thomas v. Easley, 2000 WL 33179636 (Vir. Cir. Ct. Aug. 31, 2000) (Operation of vehicle by minor driver with temporary instructional permit- jury question whether accident caused by improperly licensed driver). Based on this reasoning, these courts deny admission of evidence that the driver lacked a valid driver’s license .
However, it may be argued that the absence of a license by one who is going to be driving a large truck is different, and certainly this argument is amplified by the stated purpose of the CDL requirement. This issue has come up in various permutations. For example, in Clement v. Griffin, (La. Ct. App. 1994) the court upheld a verdict against an employer who allowed a driver without a chauffer’s license to drive a college van of baseball players. The court noted that the requirement of a chauffer’s license was to protect passengers and the public from unqualified drivers. This certainly seems analogous to the policy behind the CDL requirement.
Likewise, the Ninth Circuit found that a motor carrier’s act of allowing a driver with a suspended license, who had been classified as a “negligent driver” by the California DMV, was a proximate cause of an accident resulting from that driver’s actions. Natl. Union Fire Ins. Co. V. Showa Shipping Co., (Unpublished opinion). “It was foreseeable that allowing an improperly licensed trucking company and an incompetent driver to take possession of the chassis could result in harm to the traveling public.”
A similar finding was made by the Texas court in Williams v. Steves Industries, Inc., Tex. App. Austin 1984). There, the court found a claim of negligent entrustment supported by evidence the motor carrier allowed an unlicensed driver to operate a motor vehicle. But see, Henderson v. Your Kar Express Rentals, Inc., (Del. Sup. Ct. June 30, 2009); Rentschler v. Lewis, 33 S.W.3d 518 (2000); Schofield v. Hertz Corp., 201 Ga. App. 830, 412 S.E.2d 853 (1992)
While there is authority supporting the argument that the absence of a CDL is proof of negligence, the best arguments will couple that proof with other problems which prevented the issuance of the license, and which arguably were more of a direct factor in the wreck. A driver involved in an alcohol-related crash who did not have a license because of his prior DUIs is a good example, while a license suspension resulting from a driver that failed to pay his insurance premiums probably is not. In any event, the best shot short of a direct link seems to be to argue that the entrustment of a vehicle (especially a large truck) to an unlicensed driver is itself evidence of negligent entrustment.

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