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Liability for tractor-trailer operators hinges on employee status

On Behalf of | Dec 16, 2022 | Truck Accidents

Commerce would stall if not for the continuous delivery systems large trucks—those weighing from over 10,000 pounds—use to deliver products to consumers every day. These vehicles accounted for nearly 9% of the total number of fatal crashes in 2020. Georgia ranks in the top half of fatal crashes involving these vehicles per 100,000 residents and below the national average in percentage of accidents statewide involving large trucks.

A recent court case highlights how important a consideration is regarding liability for those who suffer from accidents involving large trucks. A collision between a passenger vehicle and a tractor-trailer killed the driver of the passenger vehicle and left her son with serious injuries. The driver’s estate filed suit against the driver of the tractor-trailer for negligence and the owner of the trailer and the parent company under a theory of employer liability.

Two tests: actual control and federal regulations

Among other issues addressed, the lower court ruled that the plaintiffs had sufficient facts in dispute for a trial. On appeal, both entities countered that the driver had served as an independent contractor, thereby severing their liability on two grounds: the control test for determining employee status under state law and the statutory employment relationship provision under Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR).

On the first issue, the court determined that taking steps to see if a contractor carries out an agreement does not create employer liability. Second, the court noted that federal law exempts trailers not drawn by a unit leased from that entity from liability. The company owned the trailer, but the driver owned the tractor. Ultimately, the decision eliminated both companies from liability for the driver’s conduct.

Experience matters

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Administration, Georgia averaged just over 206 fatalities involving large trucks annually between 2016 and 2019. Unpredictable winter weather and increased holiday travel create a perfect storm for large truck accidents. The physical, emotional and financial ramifications can overwhelm anyone. Attorneys who understand truck accidents can offer guidance on how to address these concerns.