Statutory-employment theory, and tractor accidents

Posted in truck accident on March 14, 2022

The question of who was responsible when a commercial truck was involved in an accident was recently heard before the Georgia Court of Appeals.

After picking up a load of green peanuts from a farm to take to Golden Peanut’s drying facility in Camilla, a tractor-trailer made a left turn to head northbound onto a two-lane road. A passenger vehicle, which was traveling southbound, collided with the side of the trailer.

The crash resulted in the death of the driver of passenger vehicle and serious injuries to her son. The son and the driver’s estate sued the driver of the tractor-trailer, as well as Golden Peanut Company (the owner of the trailer that the driver was transporting), and Archer Daniels Midland Company (“ADM”) (Golden Peanut’s parent company).

The plaintiffs claimed that the commercial vehicle driver was negligent and that Golden Peanut and ADM were liable under theories of common-law vicarious liability and as a statutory employer under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (“FMCSRs”).

Golden Peanut and ADM argued that the evidence demonstrated that neither of them had any right to control the truck driver’s work. The Court of Appeals agreed.

Georgia Statute § 51-2-4 states:

An employer generally is not responsible for torts committed by his employee when the employee exercises an independent business and in it is not subject to the immediate direction and control of the employer.

Was the Commercial Truck Driver an Employee?

Evidence showed that the driver owned a sole proprietorship and owned the tractor involved in the collision. He paid for his own expenses in maintaining the tractor, including taxes and insurance. Through his sole proprietorship, the truck driver contracted with a broker that issued him an IRS form 1099 for tax purposes and paid the truck driver a flat rate minus commission.

During the harvest season, Golden Peanut engaged the broker, who had the truck driver contact the Golden Peanut facility. The facility dispatcher gave the truck driver the list of farmers who had loads of peanuts ready for pickup. The truck driver coordinated the pickups directly with the farmers.

According to the truck driver, Golden Peanut didn’t tell him the specific routes to take when delivering the peanuts. After picking up the peanuts using the specialty trailer with tarp, he hauled the peanuts to Golden Peanut’s facility, where he worked with Golden Peanut employees to ensure the trailer was hooked up to a dryer. Golden Peanut didn’t provide any instruction to the truck driver on these tasks. While the peanut company sometimes asked that loads be picked up or delivered at specific times, it had no control over his work schedule.

Judge Reese of the Georgia Court of Appeals concluded that these facts weren’t sufficient to create a genuine issue as to the vicarious liability of a manufacturer or distributor of goods such as Golden Peanut or ADM. Quoting a 1986 Court of Appeals decision, he wrote, “to the extent that the delivery schedule may impose parameters involving the time within which the work must be executed, such is not sufficient to raise an issue as to the nature of the relationship between defendant [the distributor] and [an independent hauler].”

Golden Peanut employees did give instructions to the truck driver on where to park to unload the peanuts when he arrived at the facility and to hook up to a dryer to ensure the peanuts wouldn’t rot; however, “merely taking steps to see that the contractor carries out his agreement … is not such interference and assumption of control as will render the employer liable,” Judge Reese wrote. Further, although the truck driver was hauling a specialized trailer owned by Golden Peanut, and he rolled or unrolled a tarp when picking up the peanuts, this didn’t “convert” him from an independent contractor to an employee.

Did the Trial Court Err in not Dismissing the Case Based on the Statutory-Employer Doctrine under the FMCSRs?

Golden Peanut and ADM argued that the trial court erred by finding they could be vicariously liable as the statutory employers of the truck driver under the FMCSRs. Judge Reese wrote that under the statutory-employment theory, a lessee motor carrier is strictly liable under the FMCSRs for the operation of the equipment for the duration of the lease. But the trucking regulations define an “employee” as:

any individual, other than an employer, who is employed by an employer and who in the course of his or her employment directly affects commercial motor vehicle safety. Such term includes a driver of a commercial motor vehicle (including an independent contractor while in the course of operating a commercial motor vehicle)[.]

An “employer” is “any person engaged in a business affecting interstate commerce who owns or leases a commercial motor vehicle in connection with that business, or assigns employees to operate it[.]”

Thus, as this court said in 2020, “the existence of a lease between the defendant and owner of the vehicle involved in an accident is the defining element in creating a statutory employment relationship under the FMCSRs.”

Here, the evidence showed that there wasn’t a lease for the tractor. The plaintiffs didn’t argue that Golden Peanut owned or leased the tractor, but said a lease wasn’t necessary to establish statutory employer liability because Golden Peanut owned the trailer. Judge Reese disagreed with that argument because the trailer wasn’t a “motor vehicle.”

A “motor vehicle” is defined by the FMCSRs as “any vehicle, machine, tractor, trailer, or semitrailer propelled or drawn by mechanical power and used upon the highways in the transportation of passengers or property, or any combination thereof[.]” and the FMCSRs specifically exempt “[a]ny type of trailer not drawn by a power unit leased from the same lessor.”

Thus, because the Golden Peanut trailer was not drawn by a Golden Peanut tractor, the FMCSRs didn’t apply, and the judgment for the plaintiffs was reversed. Golden Peanut Co. v. Millerm 2022 Ga. App. LEXIS 116 (Ga. App. March 4, 2022).

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