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Establishing Vicarious Liability in Truck Accident Lawsuit Filed by Injured Trucker

Florida truck accident lawsuits are among the most complex in motor vehicle litigation for numerous reasons. Successful truck accident attorneys know this is in large part because the sheer size and weight of these vehicles and the fact that collisions often occur at high-speeds on highways inevitably means a greater severity of injuries. Another reason is there are often numerous defendants. It’s not just the driver, but the driver’s employer and the carrier and the owner of the cargo and possibly others. Employers or companies acting as employers may be held vicariously liable for the negligent acts of a driver who was acting in the course and scope of employment at the time of the accident.

Although occupants of passenger vehicles most often suffer the worst outcomes in truck accidents, truck drivers aren’t immune from injuries, especially if the collision involved another large vehicle. That typically opens another avenue of recovery in workers’ compensation, though this doesn’t necessarily foreclose on other legal remedies.

In a recent case weighed by the Wyoming Supreme Court, justices reversed in part a summary judgment in claim filed by a truck driver who was struck by another large truck while he worked to free his truck from its stationary position on a snow-covered highway. The court ruled that while claims against plaintiff’s co-driver and the owner of the cargo they were hauling for direct negligence were correctly decided in defendants’ favor, plaintiff’s claim for damages on the issue of vicarious liability should have survived summary judgment. That means he may continue with his claim, though justices noted in their ruling, “(plaintiff) will undoubtedly have a difficult case to try,” namely because he bear the burden of proof on issues of negligence, causation and damages, as well as probable assertions of comparative fault. 

Here’s what happened (according to court records):

Plaintiff and his co-driver (one of the later-named defendants) were operating a rig hauling a trailer with cargo owned by a large international shipping company that contracted with the drivers’ employer. Each took turns with 11-hour driving shifts, so as to comply with federal limits on drive time. Plaintiff (the more experienced driver who helped train the other) was sleeping in the berth when his co-driver encountered stopped traffic and snow ahead. Driver slowed and stopped appropriately for traffic ahead, but found he was unable to move when the flow resumed due to being stuck in the accumulation of snow.

Driver did not immediately install warning devices (i.e., emergency reflective triangles), which 49 CFR 392.22(b) requires one to do “as soon as possible” or at least “in any event within 10 minutes.” Instead, the driver woke his co-driver to explain they were stuck and ask for help. After a quick check of systems, plaintiff determined the driver wheels were spinning and they would need to install chains on some of the tires. Chains were kept on a catwalk between the trailers and the tractor, so plaintiff got onto the catwalk to get them. While he was there, another semi-truck rear-ended the vehicle, throwing plaintiff to the shoulder and resulting serious injuries.

Plaintiff received workers’ compensation benefits, but then also filed a lawsuit against the driver of the other truck (and several other parties with whom that driver was associated) and later in another court against his co-driver and the shipping company. Against the latter, he alleged both direct negligence (negligent training) and vicarious liability for his co-driver’s negligence. He alleged his co-driver was negligent in driving the commercial vehicle in weather conditions he should have known would have made it probable the truck would get stuck, he failed to pull onto the shoulder when he realized this dilemma, he didn’t follow mandatory tire chain requirements and he didn’t activate emergency flashers or lights to ensure oncoming traffic would see the truck.

Trial court granted co-driver summary judgment based on co-employee immunity, given that plaintiff had received workers’ compensation. Court also granted summary judgment favoring the shipping company, asserting plaintiff’s expert witness conclusions were speculative and plaintiff failed to oppose the company’s motion with evidence showing material fact.

In its reversal on the vicarious liability claim, the state high court ruled the company could potentially ruled vicariously liable (if it could be proved the co-driver was indeed negligent) because 49 CFR 390.11 imposes a duty on motor carriers (like this one) to ensure drivers employed by contractors abide by federal safety rules. While plaintiff didn’t necessarily have irrefutable proof of negligence and causation, neither did the shipping company adequately contradict it, and when it comes to summary judgment, plaintiffs are generally given the benefit of the doubt.

This means the trucker will have an opportunity to pursue his claim for damages, though he still may face numerous legal hurdles. This is where an experienced truck accident attorney will be imperative.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Bogdanski v. Budzik, Jan. 24, 2018, Wyoming Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

2018 Off to a Racing Start With Unsafe Vehicle Recalls, Jan. 31, 2018, Fort Lauderdale Truck Accident Attorney Blog

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