Cases brought against trucking companies involve several theories of liability unique to such claims. Due to the nature of the trucking industry, often times the focus of the dispute will relate to the employment of a driver and whether conduct of the driver will impute liability upon the employer, as well as the company that may have leased equipment to the employer. Missouri has evaluated these claims in detail, but the approach that will be implemented for delivering a ruling may vary depending on the factual context giving rise to the claim.
Underlying most Missouri cases brought against carriers will be a concept of respondeat superior. Generally speaking, in Missouri an employer or principal may be found liable for negligence attributable to an employee or agent when such acts are committed within the scope and course of their employment. Burks v. Leap, 413 S.W.2d 258, 266 (Mo.1967). The question of whether or not an act was committed within the scope of employment “… is not determined by the time or his motive but by whether act was done by virtue of the employment and in furtherance of the master's business.” Id. Factors taken into consideration for this determination include: 1) whether the employee/agent actions were for the sole benefit of the employer; and 2) the degree of control that the employer has over the employee. Id.
An important consideration for cases involving allegations of respondeat superior liability, is the Defendants initial response to the claim. If from the onset of a case an employer stipulates to a theory of respondent superior liability, than it would be improper for the Plaintiff to proceed on any other claim involving imputed liability. This comports with the majority view as held by other states. See McHaffie By & Through McHaffie v. Bunch, 891 S.W.2d 822, 826 (Mo. 1995). For instance, if an employer admits that they would be liable for an employees negligent conduct within the scope of employment, then a Plaintiff will generally not be permitted to bring a claim of negligent entrustment. Id.
RESPONDEAT SUPERIOR IN TRUCKING CASES
Issues of respondeat superior arise in trucking cases often, as the industry has grown to foster the division of assignment in planning/scheduling truckload deliveries. Rarely is there a company in the industry that acts as a full scale operation from contracting with buyers, sellers, shippers, carriers, to the delivering of a haul to the targeted destination. Modern trucking business models include division of process segments and often the leasing of equipment. Trucking companies often hire independent contractors to complete deliveries. Many saw this practice as an attempt to insulate carriers from liability, and in the 1950’s, the Interstate Commerce Commission was authorized to adopt regulations that would govern the act of leasing equipment in such a manner. The court in Brannaker v. Transamerican Freight Lines, Inc., 428 S.W.2d 524, 528 (Mo.1968) provided commentary on the ICC’s action:
“Insofar as we are immediately concerned, one of the principal abuses that developed ... was the practice whereby authorized motor carriers leased equipment from others and engaged the owners or someone for them to drive and operate the equipment as independent contractors to transport cargo for the authorized carriers. The leases were usually for a single trip or for short duration and the independent contractors were often unreliable. This practice created economic abuses and legal problems which brought on legislation and regulations designed to prevent the authorized motor carriers from delegating the performance of their franchise duties to independent contractors and from engaging in ruinous competition and evading their public responsibilities.”
As indicated by Brannaker, one of the practical impacts of the ICC’s action was that in instances of the lease agreement arrangement, the carrier-lessee would become liable for the negligent acts attributable to the owner-driver of the leased equipment, in the same manner that it would would be responsible if one of its own drivers had committed the same act operating the carrier’s equipment. Id.
A common contention in respondeat superior claims involving trucking companies revolves around the purpose and manner for which the transport company was operating the vehicle in relation to the carrier. For example, liability has been applied in certain circumstances where a carrier gives identifying materials to be equipped on a vehicle that will exhibit the name and contact information for the carrier. This has been referred to as placard liability.
Brannaker v. Transamerican Freight Lines, Inc., 428 S.W.2d 524, 533 (Mo. 1968), is one of Missouri’s seminal cases dealing with the advent of placard vicarious liability. In Brannaker, a trucking equipment lessee was given a placard by the Defendant to be placed on the equipment while a haul was being delivered. Prior to the accident that gave rise to the case, the lessee had returned the placards to the Defendant equipment owner. The fact that the placards had been returned, among other conditions, compelled the court to find that the lessee’s rights and responsibilities in relation to the Defendant had ended. Id. The Brannaker Court’s ruling illustrated that the act of returning the placards may preclude vicarious liability in these cases.
In addition, Brannaker highlights two additional factors that if present may sway the determination of vicarious liability in these cases. First, the court will look at the carrier’s efforts to terminate the lease and reclaim any identifying signs/materials that it had issued. See Johnson v. Pac. Intermountain Exp. Co., 662 S.W.2d 237, 244 (Mo. 1983). If the carrier has made an attempt to terminate the relationship, and the lessee has not complied with requests for the return of property within reasonable means, then the court may find that no vicarious liability existed. Id. Second, the purpose of the travel must be examined. If the lessee was utilizing the equipment for a “mission personal to the driver, not involving the hauling of freight for the benefit of the lessee carrier or anyone else, at the time of the accident,” then such a finding may preclude vicarious liability. Id.
In 1990, the court in Parker v. Midwestern Distribution, Inc., 797 S.W.2d 721 (Mo. Ct. App. 1990) held, “In absence of evidence to the contrary, mere presence on vehicle at time of accident of placard furnished by carrier creates presumption of carrier's vicarious liability.” Id at 723.
The presumption as promulgated by the Parker court has not been applied without contention, and such presumption is certainly not the extent of the applicable analysis. The Parker Court described its own interpretation of additional applicable considerations:
whether the sign or identifying legend was furnished by the carrier in connection with a lease;
whether the sign was on the truck at the time of the accident; and
whether the truck was hauling regulated freight at the time of the accident.
Id at 723.
HORNER V. FEDEX
Horner v. FedEx Ground Package Sys. Inc., 258 S.W.3d 532, 534 (Mo. Ct. App. 2008) marks one of the more recent instances in which Missouri has evaluated respondeat superior liability in a trucking case. In Horner, the Plaintiff was injured in a collision with a semi truck. The semi truck was driven by an employee of a company that had leased the semi truck from FedEx Ground Package System. The driver of the semi truck was employed by the lessee and was at fault for the wreck. The Plaintiff brought suit against FedEx upon argument that FedEx was vicariously liable for the driver’s negligence. FedEx refuted this.
In finding that vicarious liability did extend to FedEx through respondeat superior, the Horner Court acknowledged the critical fact that FedEx had given the truck lessee placards to be placed on the semi truck. In addition, the court made reference to the purpose of travel at the time of the accident:
“More specifically, Allen was transporting the truck-tractor, following maintenance work, from a maintenance facility owned by FedEx Ground in Brookfield, Missouri, to FedEx Ground's Shawnee hub, where the truck-tractor needed to be to accept its next FedEx Ground load for transport. Such maintenance was in furtherance of FedEx Ground's business purposes, given its legal responsibility to ensure the safety of equipment used for hauling its freight over public highways, and the fact that equipment in good operating condition is needed to move FedEx Ground's freight.”
Id at 539.
Given that the trucking industry has become increasingly segmented, the array of parties that may be implicated from a driver’s negligence is vast. Plaintiffs must be diligent in searching through all potential entities to ensure that the correct defendants have been identified. Contractual arrangements and leases must be obtained to fully understand the nature of the relationship between entities in the trucking process.
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