If a Court Says a Plaintiff Adequately Alleged a Claim for Negligent Hiring and Retention Against a Trucking Company, Why was Her Case Dismissed?

Posted in truck accidents on March 1, 2022

 Negligent Hiring and Retention Against a Truck Company

Peter Gauthier was killed after his vehicle collided with a tractor-trailer. Total Quality is a shipment broker who used Hard to Stop (a common carrier) and Ronald Shingles (one of Hard to Stop’s employees) to pick up a load of cargo from a poultry plant in Claxton, Georgia. Shingles was driving on a highway to pick up the load in a commercial truck owned by Hard to Stop when he missed the entrance to the poultry plant. He tried to do a U-turn and, in the process, obstructed several lanes of traffic from both directions. Mr. Gauthier, who was traveling on the same highway but in the opposite direction, crashed into the tractor-trailer and died as a result of his injuries.

Mrs. Gauthier filed a wrongful death action on behalf of herself, Mr. Gauthier’s estate, and her two daughters against the truck driver (Shingles), Hard to Stop, and Great West Casualty Insurance Company (“Great West”), Hard to Stop’s insurer. She alleged that the driver and Hard to Stop proximately caused her husband’s death. Her Complaint contained a number of counts, including a claim of negligent selection, hiring, and retention against Hard to Stop and Total Quality. Total Quality filed a Motion to Dismiss arguing that Mrs. Gauthier failed to allege sufficient facts to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

The Court Says that Mrs. Gauthier alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for Negligent Hiring and Retention

Mrs. Gauthier argued that Total Quality “negligently hired, contracted with, and/or retained Defendant Shingles as a driver and failed to exercise ordinary care to determine his fitness for the task of operating a commercial motor vehicle.” In Georgia, “[a] claim for negligent hiring, retention or supervision brought pursuant to Georgia law arises when an employer negligently hires, retains or supervises an employee and that employee subsequently harms the plaintiff.” To establish this, the plaintiff must allege that the employer “knew or should have known of the employee’s propensity to engage in the conduct which caused the plaintiff’s injury.”

In her Complaint, Mrs. Gauthier alleged that Total Quality “knew or should have known of prior wrecks, dangerous behavior, and traffic violations by Defendant Shingles, which include multiple speeding tickets, driving with a suspended license on multiple occasions, battery, and constructive possession of controlled substances.” She also alleged that Total Quality “[f]ail[ed] to perform or improperly perform[ed] background, driving record, physical fitness to drive and/or character investigations” which would have revealed this information. These allegations, if proven, should have put Total Quality on notice that the truck driver had a tendency or propensity to engage in behaviors that placed other drivers at risk.

U.S. District Judge R. Stan Baker said that these behaviors are relevant to and could be found to have a causal connection with the alleged cause of Mr. Gauthier’s death because Mrs. Gauthier alleged the accident was proximately caused by, inter alia, Defendant Shingles’ “negligent, reckless, and illegal U-turn,” which “obstruct[ed] multiple lanes of traffic.” Accordingly, the Court found that Mrs. Gauthier alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for negligent hiring and retention.

However, Mrs. Gauthier’s Negligent Hiring Claim is Preempted Under the FAAAA.

Preemption is a doctrine that says a higher authority of law will supersede or displace the law of a lower authority of law when the two authorities come into conflict, such as a federal law “trumping” a Georgia state law.

Here, Total Quality argued that Mrs. Gauthier’s negligent hiring claim should be dismissed because was preempted by Section 14501(c)(1) of the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA). That section prohibits states from “enact[ing] or enforc[ing] a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier . . . or any private motor carrier, broker, or freight forwarder with respect to the transportation of property.” Section 14501(c)(1) uses the phrase “related to,” which the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted to express a “broad pre-emptive purpose.” In fact, the Supreme Court has stated that the phrase “related to” in Section 14501(c)(1) “embraces state laws having a connection with or reference to carrier ‘rates, routes, or services,’ whether directly or indirectly.”

Even so, the Supreme Court has said that Section 14501(c)(1)’s preemptive scope is curtailed by the phrase “with respect to the transportation of property,” which is not included in the ADA. Thus, in order to be preempted by the FAAAA, Judge Baker explained that state laws or enforcement actions must: (1) affect a broker’s prices, routes, or services in more than a “tenuous, remote, or peripheral” manner; and (2) concern “the transportation of property.”

As such, the judge held that negligence claims against brokers are preempted by Section 14501(c)(1) when their subject matter is “related to” the broker’s services and concerns the transportation of property. A claim is “related to” the services of a broker when it has a “connection with, or reference” thereto. Such a connection exists where a claim has a “significant impact” on a broker’s services. A “broker” is a person “selling, providing, or arranging for, transportation by motor carrier for compensation.” While the term “services” isn’t expressly defined, the term “transportation” is defined to include “services related to [the movement of passengers or property], including arranging for, receipt, delivery, . . . and interchange of passengers and property.”

Therefore, the judge held that the FAAAA preempts negligence claims that are sufficiently connected to or have a significant impact on brokers’ core bargained-for services: arranging for the transportation of property. As a result, Mrs. Gauthier’s negligent hiring claim is within the scope of section 14501(c)(1) because it was “related to” Total Quality’s brokerage services. To that end, the Court noted that Mrs. Gauthier expressly alleged that Total Quality was the “shipment broker…which selected and arranged for Defendants Shingles and/or Hard to Stop to pick up the load and deliver it.” Plus, she alleged that Total Quality, as a freight broker, owed the following duties:

  • To investigate and only select and contract with safe and competent contractors and motor carriers to transport goods in interstate commerce;
  • Not to hire or retain drivers it knew or should have known posed a risk of harm to others;
  • To arrange for the transport of property in a commercial motor vehicle “in a reasonably prudent manner”; and
  • To ensure that the motor carriers with whom it arranged transportation of goods were reasonably safe and complied with all laws and industry standards concerning the safe operation and maintenance of commercial motor vehicles.

According to Mrs. Gauthier, Total Quality breached these duties, in part, by “[h]iring and retaining Shingles and/or Hard to Stop, despite its subpar safety, maintenance, and driving record, which was or should have been known to Total Quality” and by “[f]ailing to perform or improperly performing background, driving record, physical fitness to drive and/or character investigations that would have revealed Shingles and/or Hard to Stop was an unsafe and incompetent motor carrier.”

These allegations were directly related to the “core service provided by [Total Quality]—hiring motor carriers to transport shipments”—because they were based entirely upon Total Quality’s decision to select Hard to Stop as the motor carrier, Judge Baker opined. Based on this, Total Quality’s Motion to Dismiss was granted. Gauthier v. Hard To Stop LLC, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20564 *; 2022 WL 344557 (S.D. Ga. February 4, 2022).

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