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Harris v. FedEx – Truck Crash Lawsuit Hinges on Trucker’s Employment Status

When it comes to holding a company responsible for the negligent actions of its employee, there are several possible legal theories that may apply. The first involves holding the company indirectly (or vicariously) liable, and the second involves the assertion of direct negligence by the company, via negligent hiring, training and/or supervision.

Our Hollywood truck accident lawyers know that in crashes where commercial vehicles are involved, determining to what extent an employer is responsible is important. While drivers may carry individual liability insurance, to which injured parties may be entitled, corporate insurance policies for commercial vehicles tend to have higher limits, meaning the total amount recoverable by injured parties is likely to be higher.

However, before you can collect, your attorney is going to have to prove the driver worked for the company. This may seem simple enough. But the reality is, there are all kinds of employment arrangements, and the type the driver had in your case could be critical in determining whether you are entitled to seek damages from the employer.

The recent case of Harris, et al. v. FedEx National LTL, Inc. is a good example of some of the pitfalls that can arise in making the case.

The crash in question occurred in the fall of 2007, when a commercial trucker lost control of his rig and rolled over, coming to a rest in a manner that blocked both lanes on the interstate. Oncoming traffic didn’t have time to stop. One of those drivers, unable to avoid a collision, slammed into the side of the truck. The impact killed the motorist and seriously injured his passenger.

The decedent’s widow later sued the trucker, the trucker’s direct employer, the company that owned the tractor (which was leased), and FedEx, which owned the two trailers the driver was hauling at the time of the crash. Although the worker was paid by his direct employer, he was transporting the trailers with goods for FedEx between distribution centers at the time of the crash.

FedEx moved for a summary judgment in its favor, arguing that it was not responsible for the trucker’s actions because the trucker was not one of its employees. Rather, the firm for which the trucker did work was an independent contractor of FedEx. Generally, companies are not responsible for the actions or failures of their independent contractors.

The district court granted that request for summary judgment.

The plaintiff appealed, arguing the trucker was an employee of FedEx, a formally-recognized motor carrier service.

In weighing whether this was true, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit looked at the details of the professional relationship between the driver and the company. Often, just because a company says a worker is an independent contractor doesn’t necessarily mean they are. What matters in making this distinction is the level of control the firm asserts over the worker’s day-to-day actions, the way the worker is paid, whether the firm gives tools to the worker to complete his or her job, among other considerations.

Here, the court determined the driver was the employee of an independent contractor. This means the plaintiff could still pursue damages against the driver, his direct employer and their insurers, but not against the larger FedEx.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:
Harris, et al. v. FedEx National LTL, Inc., July 24, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

More Blog Entries:
Gray v. Richbell – Requirements for Compulsory Medical Exam, July 6, 2014, Hollywood Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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