Is a Minivan a “Motor Carrier” under Georgia Law?

Is a Minivan a “Motor Carrier” under Georgia Law?

A truck driver recently appealed from a trial court’s order granting an insurance company’s motion for summary judgment where the truck driver asserted that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether a passenger van insured by the insurance company was owned or operated by a “motor carrier” under O.C.G.A. § 40-1-100 et seq.

Accident on the roads

A seven-passenger Dodge Caravan collided with a Chevrolet Colorado truck after the Caravan driver made an improper lane change. The truck driver filed a lawsuit against the Caravan driver’s employer, its parent company, and the insurance carrier of the parent company, asserting various theories of liability for the negligent and/or reckless conduct of the Caravan driver. The truck driver asserted a direct action claim against the Insurance Company pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 40-1-112, based on his contention that the Caravan driver’s employer and its parent company were motor carriers under O.C.G.A. § 40-1-100. The trial court granted the Insurance Company’s motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether any of the defendants were a motor carrier.

Definitions under the Georgia Motor Carrier Act

Georgia’s direct action provision of the Georgia Motor Carrier Act (“the Act”) states: “It shall be permissible under this part for any person having a cause of action arising under this part to join in the same action the motor carrier and the insurance carrier, whether arising in tort or contract.” O.C.G.A. § 40-1-112(c).

In 1992, the Georgia Supreme Court explained that “[t]he purpose of permitting joinder of [an insurance company] in a claim against a [motor] carrier is to further the policy of the Motor Carrier Act, that is, to protect the public against injuries caused by the motor carrier’s negligence.” Additionally, it “enables injured persons to recover compensation more efficiently and quickly and encourages insurers to resolve legitimate claims by settlement.” Importantly, Supreme Court added that the statute’s terms require strict compliance.

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge E. Trenton Brown III wrote that the first step of the analysis is to determine if the Caravan driver’s employer and its parent company fell within the definition of “motor carrier” in the Act.

O.C.G.A. § 40-1-100(12)(A) provides that this term…

means: [e]very person owning, controlling, operating, or managing any motor vehicle, including the lessees, receivers, or trustees of such persons or receivers appointed by any court, used in the business of transporting for hire persons, household goods, or property or engaged in the activity of nonconsensual towing pursuant to Code Section 44-1-13 for hire over any public highway in this state.

O.C.G.A. § 40-1-100(8) defines “‘for hire’” to mean “an activity relating to a person engaged in the transportation of goods or passengers for compensation.” And,

“[p]assenger” means a person who travels in a public conveyance by virtue of a contract, either express or implied, with the carrier as to the payment of the fare or that which is accepted as an equivalent therefor. The prepayment of fare is not necessary to establish the relationship of passenger and carrier, although a carrier may demand prepayment of fare if persons enter his or her vehicle by his or her permission with the intention of being carried; in the absence of such a demand, an obligation to pay fare is implied on the part of the passenger, and the reciprocal obligation of carriage of the carrier arises upon the entry of the passenger.

Finally, “‘[c]arrier’” is defined to mean “a person who undertakes the transporting of goods or passengers for compensation.” Taken together, Judge Brown said that it was clear from the plain language of the statute that the term “motor carrier” depends in turn on the definition of “for hire,” which in turn depends upon the definition of “passenger” found in O.C.G.A. § 40-1-100(13).

Was the Employer “Employing” and “Directing” the Caravan Driver’s Activities?

Here, the truck driver argued that evidence showed that the Caravan driver’s employer and its parent company “operate as a joint enterprise” with both companies “employing” and “directing” the Caravan driver’s activities, which included transporting their clients. In his view, a genuine issue of material fact existed as to “whether the for-profit companies that charged to provide services including transportation over Georgia roadways” fall within the definition of motor carrier. The truck driver argued that “[t]he law just requires that one purpose of the vehicle falls within the statutory definition of ‘motor carrier’ — there is no percentage allocation or analysis of whether the statutorily enumerated services of a motor carrier are ‘ancillary’ to a business goal.”

The Insurance Company, on the other hand, asserted that the van wasn’t used for “the business of transporting people for compensation” and that it was “an entirely ancillary part of [the Caravan driver’s employer’s] service of providing home health care.” According to the Insurance Company, the defendant companies were ‘’solely in the business of providing rehabilitative home health care support to individuals with disabilities. Neither company … [is] compensated for transporting residents — they are paid for caregiving services and would be paid exactly the same if they never transported any resident, ever.”

A representative for the Caravan driver’s employer testified that she is the executive director of southeast operations for the company. She explained that the Caravan driver’s employer, which is a subsidiary, “managed the healthcare and pretty much every aspect of people with intellectual disabilities . … Basically, taking care of them … in a group home or in a personal home[.]” For the most part, the Caravan driver’s employer followed policies and procedures developed by its parent company. It’s Corrective Action Form states:

The Company’s mission is to be the best diversified health and human services provider in serving populations of various needs in our communities; creating optimal environments that foster independence, safety, and outcomes, through best-in-class services, an innovative and technology-led approach, and highly engaged people.

The declarations page for the business auto policy covering the Dodge Caravan listed the parent company’s business as “job training and vocational rehabilitation services.”

The Caravan driver worked for his employer as direct support staff at two particular group homes and driving was a regular part of his job duties. The Dodge Caravan was used to drive residents of the group home to medical appointments, a drug store to pick up prescriptions, the grocery or a big box store, the library, a park, special events, or just a ride if a resident was restless. Basically, the residents of the group home could “go anywhere they need[ed] or want[ed] to go” in the Dodge Caravan, which would be driven by the Caravan driver’s employer staff. At the time of the accident, the Caravan driver was transporting a resident back to the group home. The Court said the reason for the trip couldn’t be determined from the record.

In an affidavit submitted at the same time as the Insurance Company’s motion for summary judgment, the Caravan driver’s employer’s representative averred that”

  • The Caravan driver’s employer was paid to provide group residential home services for its disabled clients — assisting them with eating, bathing, dressing, mobility, behavioral monitoring and redirection, and other activities of daily living, including general supervision in the home.
  • As an adjunct to those core activities, the Caravan driver’s employer employees sometimes drove clients to various appointments, doctor/medical/psychiatric visits, and similar errands.
  • The Caravan driver’s employer does not charge extra or separately for transporting clients. The Caravan driver’s employer’s expenses for transporting its clients are paid from its general operating budget.
  • The Caravan driver’s employer didn’t transport residents for its own benefit or revenue, but as a service ancillary to its primary function of operating residential homes for disabled individuals.
  • The Caravan driver’s employer provided transportation for its clients only, and its transportation services weren’t held out for hire to the general public.

Having considered the particular facts and circumstances of this case, the requirement that the Court must strictly construe the Act, and all other relevant rules of statutory construction, the Court of Appeals concluded that no genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the Dodge Caravan was a “public conveyance” as that term is used in the statutory definition of “passenger” in O.C.G.A. § 40-1-100(13).

As a result, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment favor of the Insurance Company. Hughes v. Ace American Ins. Co., 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 224 (Ga. App. May 26, 2023).

Speak to an Experienced Atlanta Truck Accident Attorney

If you have a family member who was hurt in an auto or truck accident, you should speak to an experienced personal injury lawyer.  Tobin Injury Law is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 404-JUSTICE (404-587-8423) or reach out via our online contact form.