When semi-trailers are involved in highway accidents, the impact is often devastating. In many cases, the result is lifelong, permanent injuries and death. The sheer size of these vehicles, plus the long hours and intense deadlines faced by drivers, contribute to the danger.

oldtruck1But when it comes to receiving compensation for these injuries, the litigation process is often not as straightforward as one might hope. Much of this has to do with the fact that trucking companies have effectively been able to sidestep liability by subcontracting drivers, trailers and more. While trucking firms are generally liable for injuries caused by their employees, if the company can successfully assert the trucker was an “independent contractor,” it won’t have to cover damages.

This is why it’s so important for injury lawyers to be well-versed in many various aspects of the law – including even Florida employment law. Just because a company labels a driver as an independent contractor doesn’t necessarily make it so. An experienced attorney working on your behalf may be able to prove through circumstantial evidence that the label is improper and the company is in fact vicariously liable for the trucker’s negligence.

In the recent case of Crocker v. Morales-Santana, one trucking firm tried to use this strategy to avoid liability in a truck crash case, but was unsuccessful.

As our Tampa truck accident lawyers understand it, the North Dakota Supreme Court held that one company could be held vicariously liable, despite the claims of the trucker as an “independent contractor,” though the summary judgment in favor of a second defendant was affirmed.

According to court records, the plaintiff was a county sheriff who suffered serious injuries in the spring of 2009 when a semi-tractor and trailer struck a patrol car occupied by the plaintiff on the interstate. At the time, the sheriff was aiding a stranded motorist who was stuck on the side of the road in the midst of a winter storm.

According to the truck driver, he was operating the semi-tractor as an independent contractor of a tire company under the tire company’s federal motor carrier certificate of authority. The trailer, meanwhile, was owned by another company, based in Nebraska.

It was later revealed the tire company and the trailer owner entered a broker agreement in 2007 in which the trailer owner agreed to provide transportation services in interstate commerce to the tire company as part of a non-exclusive agreement. The tire company was required to maintain its federal motor carrier license, as well as liability and auto insurance for at least $1 million, and to indemnify the trailer owner in the event of a crash.

The tire company also contracted with several commercial truck drivers, including the one involved in this case, to drive the separately-owned trailers.

In the lawsuit, plaintiff first named the driver, the tire company and the trailer owner, asserting the latter two were both employers of the first and were therefore both vicariously liable per the doctrine of respondeat superior, as well as under a claim for a joint business venture.

The trailer owner’s motion for summary judgment was granted when the court found there was no contract between the driver and trailer owner.

Later at trial, the trucker was found 100 percent at-fault for the crash, and the tire company was found vicariously liable – even though the driver was labeled an independent contractor – because it significantly controlled the actions of the driver, which meant he could be classified as an employee. The court awarded $300,000 to the plaintiff. The amount might have been more had the wife’s loss of consortium claim stood, but she died while the action was pending.

The tire company did not appeal this judgment, and it was paid.

The court later affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the trailer owner.

If you have been a victim of a truck accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Crocker v. Morales-Santana, October 2014, North Dakota Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

GEICO v. Rodriguez – Insurer to Pay Sanctions in Pedestrian Injury Claim, Sept. 23, 2014, Tampa Truck Accident Lawyer Blog