How Does a Georgia Accident Victim Show a Truck Company’s Negligent Hiring, Qualifying, Retaining, Supervising, and Entrusting of a Truck Driver

Posted in Georgia Court of Appeals,Georgia Supreme Court decisions,truck accidents on July 21, 2021

A number of actions arose from a motor vehicle accident that happened on Interstate 95 in November 2017. That evening, Jennifer Correll (Mrs. Correll) was driving a 2006 Dodge Ram pickup south on I-95 through Glynn County. Jennifer’s mother, Nancy Tuk (Mrs. Tuk), was in the front passenger seat, and her daughters (Courtney and Caitlyn) were in the back seat. While traveling southbound in the middle lane on I-95, the steering wheel of the pickup began vibrating in Mrs. Correll’s hands. She moved over to the slow lane for a bit, then pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. She brought the car to a stop, put it in park, turned the hazard lights on, and shut the car off. Mrs. Correll got out and looked at the car’s tires, saw nothing out of the ordinary, and discussed with her mother whether they should continue driving home or get off at the next exit. After a few minutes on the shoulder of the interstate, they decided to continue driving home.

Mrs. Correll started the car back, turned off her hazard lights, turned on her left turn signal, and looked over her left shoulder to see if the road was clear before merging back into traffic. She did not see anybody coming, so she slowly started merging into the slow lane. As she was accelerating while in the far right-hand lane, she felt the steering wheel and truck start to shake again. She again put on her hazard lights, and about 30-60 seconds after she re-entered traffic, the first of two collisions occurred. Arnaldo Gonzalez who was driving a semi southbound on I-95, rear-ended the Corrells’ vehicle. Gonzalez says he suddenly saw the car in front of him without its hazard lights on and immediately hit the brakes. The Correll vehicle was traveling about 30-25 mph at the moment of impact, and the posted speed limit was 70 mph. After the big rig rear-ended the Corrells, their pickup lost then regained control, coming to a stop in the center lane.

Then, another collision happened: Michael Carter, who was driving another tractor-trailer southbound on I-95, collided with the Corrells’ vehicle while it was in the middle lane. Carter had been driving behind Gonzalez before the first collision, saw him put on his turn signal and apply his brakes. Carter thought Gonzalez was having an emergency, so he merged into the center lane but then hit the Corrells. Carter’s truck drifted to the left side of the road, and the Corrells’ vehicle came to rest on the right shoulder of the highway. The two semi drivers went to check on the Corrells, and Carter called 911. A Georgia State Patrol trooper arrived a few minutes later. After investigating, the trooper gave no citations, didn’t think that Carter could’ve avoided the second collision, and concluded that Mrs. Correll’s actions were contributing factors in the accident.

As a result of the collision, the Corrells were severely injured, and Mrs. Tuk later died from her injuries.

Defendant Carter’s Driving Record and Employment with Defendant the trucking company

At the time of the collision, the second semi driver, Carter, was driving a 2017 Freightliner tractor for U.S. Xpress. (“USX”). Before joining the trucking company, he attended a truck driving school in 2016 but didn’t have experience driving a semi before his training.

Carter’s last traffic citation prior to his employment with the trucking company was in 2012 for reckless driving related to speeding. There were no restrictions placed on his license as a result of this citation, and the trucking company was aware of the citation when they hired him. Carter finished at the top of his class in truck driving school, got his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), and started for the trucking company in October 2016.

Six months later, while he was employed by USX, Carter was cited for speeding in a construction zone. Then, in June of 2017, he was involved in a preventable accident in a parking lot when he hit a pole while making a turn with his semi. The trucking company was aware of all of the incidents. After the November 2017 accident involving the Corrells, Carter took three months off work for physical therapy and then continued to work for the trucking company until April 2019, when he left for family reasons.

The Plaintiffs’ Claims

The Corrells alleged that USX was independently negligent by hiring, qualifying, retaining, supervising, and entrusting its driver Carter and by failing to have appropriate policies and procedures in place regarding routing and trip planning. USX filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment in the cases.

U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia considered the trucking company’s Motion to Dismiss the Corrells’ claims of negligent hiring, qualifying, retaining, supervising, and entrusting.

Negligent Hiring and Qualifying

The Corrells contended that USX was negligent in hiring Carter as a semi driver because of his reckless driving citation in 2012. They argued that because the trucking company had knowledge of the 2012 citation, a jury could reasonably conclude that they knew or should have known that the driver wouldn’t be a competent driver for the company. The Corrells also argued that USX’s hiring policies didn’t comply with the industry standards.

Judge Wood explained that in Georgia pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 34-7-20, employers are “bound to exercise ordinary care in the selection of employees and not to retain them after knowledge of incompetency.” Thus:

a defendant employer has a duty to exercise ordinary care not to hire or retain an employee the employer knew or should have known posed a risk of harm to others where it is reasonably foreseeable from the employee’s “tendencies” or propensities that the employee could cause the type of harm sustained by the plaintiff.

Moreover, Judge Wood explained that courts have denied dismissing a case in favor of trucking companies where the employers breach their own reasonable procedures, and where the employers disregard the federal regulations concerning the hiring of commercial truck drivers.

Here, the Corrells didn’t dispute that USX complied with its own procedures and federal regulations when it hired the driver in 2016. They also didn’t contend that the trucking company should have, but failed to, discover any other incidents in the driver’s record that would’ve demonstrated his incompetence. Rather, the Corrells’ negligent hiring claim focused on the single reckless driving violation from 2012. Judge Wood couldn’t say that, as a matter of law, this violation was insufficient to support a negligent hiring claim.

The judge explained that Georgia courts have found a single driving violation sufficient to create a jury question as to negligent hiring. Although Carter’s 2012 reckless driving citation didn’t involve a license suspension, and the trucking company followed its own procedures and federal regulations, those facts didn’t mandate the conclusion that USX was not negligent in its hiring of the truck driver. Considering both the 2012 reckless driving citation and the Corrells’ expert’s opinion that USX violated the industry standard, the question of negligent hiring was one for a jury’s determination. Because of this, Judge Wood denied USX’s Motion to dismiss the negligent hiring and qualifying claims.

Negligent Retention and Supervision

Plaintiffs also claimed that the trucking company was negligent in retaining the driver as an employee in light of the incidents that occurred between his hiring in October 2016 and the accident with the Corrells. They said that Carter’s incidents, coupled with his 2012 reckless driving violation, were enough to create a jury issue as to whether the trucking company acted reasonably when it continued to retain the semi driver.

But the trucking company responded that the three negative driving incidents from Carter’s driving history didn’t constitute sufficiently similar conduct to what he engaged in when the Correll accident occurred. The company noted that Carter wasn’t speeding when the accident occurred, the company was aware of only one citation that involved Carter driving a commercial vehicle, and that he never caused an accident on the road. The driver’s prior driving incidents, they argued, can’t show that the trucking company knew or should have known that Carter had a tendency or propensity for reckless driving.

Judge Wood explained that the standard for negligent retention is the same as that of negligent hiring, except that the court considers post-employment facts for a negligent retention claim. The 2012 reckless driving charge and the two post-employment driving incidents were relevant to this claim, the judge said. The two post-employment driving incidents—which occurred within a year after Carter’s employment, within a year before the Correll accident, and within three months of one another—were enough to create a jury issue as to the negligent retention claim.

The Corrells also claimed that the trucking company was negligent in its supervision of its driver based on those same driving incidents. Based on his driving history, they argued, USX was on notice that Carter was a reckless driver.

Judge Wood explained that for an employer to be held liable for negligent supervision, there must be enough evidence to establish that the employer reasonably knew or should have known of an employee’s tendencies to engage in certain behavior relevant to the injuries allegedly incurred by the plaintiff. For the same reasons as above, the judge found that genuine issues of material fact exist as to the negligent retention claim and that dismissing this claim in favor of USX was inappropriate. Thus, Judge Wood denied USX’s motion as to negligent supervision.

Negligent Entrustment

The Corrells also claimed that the trucking company was negligent in its entrustment of the tractor-trailer to Carter. They said that Carter’s driving history showed that USX knew of a pattern of reckless driving.

Judge Wood wrote that in Georgia, the doctrine of negligent entrustment provides:

a party is liable if he entrusts someone with an instrumentality, with actual knowledge that the person to whom he has entrusted the instrumentality is incompetent by reason of his age or inexperience, or his physical or mental condition, or his known habit of recklessness.

An employer’s knowledge of a series of serious driving infractions by an employee can be enough to create an issue of fact on the issue of negligent entrustment, the judge ruled. In addition, it’s only those prior acts or instances tending to show the incompetency or habitual recklessness of the driver of which the defendant-entrustor had actual knowledge which are relevant, probative, and therefore admissible in a negligent entrustment action.

The judge found that here, the trucking company’s undisputed knowledge of its semi driver’s three prior driving incidents was relevant to the Corrells’ negligent entrustment claim for the same reasons they are relevant to the negligent retention and supervision claims. Thus, the trucking company’s motion as the negligent entrustment claim was also denied.

The Corrells’ lawsuit was able to move forward. Tuk v. U.S. Xpress, Inc., 2:19-CV-134; 2:19-CV-135; 2:19-CV-136; 2:19-CV-162, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129389 (S.D. Ga. July 12, 2021).

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