Keith’s first article in a series about busting brokers – holding those responsible for negligent hiring practice that result in trucking accidents, injuries and deaths.
We are going to do a series of articles on Broker Busting over the next few months. These articles will be based on the best practices Keith Williams has learned in his successful career of holding brokers responsible for their negligent hiring practices that result in trucking accidents on our roads. Keith believes our highways, interstates and roads can be made safer if these “hidden” businesses are held responsible for their actions and that trucking cases should be taken, if appropriate, beyond the driver and motor carrier to the brokers themselves.
1. Learning To Read The Alphabet Soup
The first step in becoming a “Broker Buster” is to become familiar with the “Alphabet Soup” involved in a trucking/broker case. A whole book could be written about the various terminology and acronyms involved in the trucking/broker industry, and a thorough understanding of the most important of these is an essential first step in the process. While no means exhaustive, here are some of the more important and more common terms you will need to know.
- BASICs: Short for Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories. These are the safety categories for which carriers are assigned a score between 0 and 100 by the SMS (0=Best/100=Worst Safety Record). The BASIC categories are Unsafe Driving; Hours of Service Compliance (HOS); Driver Fitness; Controlled Substances/Alcohol; Vehicle Maintenance; Hazardous Materials (HM) Compliance; and, Crash Indicator.
- Broker An entity who, for compensation, arranges, or offers to arrange, the transportation of property by an authorized motor carrier.
- Carrier An entity providing motor vehicle transportation for compensation.
- Compliance Review (CR) A detailed, resource-intensive on-site review of carriers to ensure compliance with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
- CSA Short for Compliance, Safety, Accountability. It is the FMCSA initiative to improve large truck and bus safety and ultimately reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities related to commercial motor vehicles.
- FMCSA This stands for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is the federal agency in charge of the federal motor safety regulations applicable to the trucking industry.
- SafeStat The old system used to score carriers for safety, prior to CSA 2010 and the new SMS/BASIC categories.
- Safety Rating A rating given to a carrier after a full compliance review is performed by the regulatory agency. The ratings include Satisfactory, Conditional, and Unsatisfactory. Once a carrier’s safety rating is final, it does not change until another full compliance review is performed on that carrier.
- SMS This term is short for the Safety Measurement System, which is the system used by the FMCSA to quantify on-road safety performance of carriers and drivers.
- USDOT Short for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
As part of that “Alphabet Soup,” it is also important to have a general understanding of what is going on in the Transportation Industry, who are the typical parties involved in “hauling a load,” and some of the alternative potential claims to look for where a broker is involved. Again, the parties involved, their relationships, and the potential claims to be asserted can be very complicated factual and legal issues.
Here is a brief, general background to get your feet wet.
Common causes of action in truck broker liability cases
Respondeat Superior One potential avenue for broker liability is through theories of vicarious liability to hold the broker liable for the negligence of the trucking carrier and its employees. These causes of action typically center on theories of agency, partnership, and joint venture between the broker (sometimes also called a “third party logistics company” or 3PL) and the carrier. These theories are usually difficult to prove, however, as brokers have gone to exhaustive lengths to draft their contracts and structure their relationships to avoid respondeat superior situations. Broker agreements with the carriers typically are replete with language asserting that the carrier is an “independent contractor” and that no employment relationship exists between the broker and carrier or its drivers.
In order to prove a respondeat superior theory of liability, the key issue typically is the issue of control by the broker. Again, though not impossible, this is often difficult to prove. In fact, some of the most significant recent broker liability cases on the plaintiff side actually saw the plaintiffs’ vicarious liability causes of action dismissed. For example, in Schramm v. Foster, 341 F. Supp. 2d 536 (D. Md. 2004), the Plaintiffs alleged the driver of the tractor-trailer was acting as the agent of the 3PL company. The court, however, disagreed and dismissed the vicarious liability claim. First, the court said that the contract between the carrier and broker expressly stated that it was one of an independent contractor, that the carrier was to employ and pay all drivers, that such persons are not employees of the broker or its customers, that the carrier was to provide all equipment and fuel required, and that the carrier was solely responsible for operating the equipment necessary to transport commodities under the contract. The court likewise found no evidence that the broker was controlling the driver’s actual performance, even though it coordinated the shipment, required the driver to call the broker directly for dispatch information, provided driving directions and special loading instructions, and required the driver to inspect the load upon pick up, use load locks, and arrange for the shipment to be unloaded. Likewise, the fact that the broker provided the driver with a number to call if he experienced any problems while transporting the load and desired for the driver to call periodically to check in did not demonstrate that the broker exercised sufficient control over the driver’s movements to make him their agent. The court further noted that even if he were an agent, there was insufficient evidence that the broker controlled the driver with respect to the manner in which he conducted his work.
Negligent Hiring While respondeat superior theories have proven difficult to win in many cases, negligent hiring is a developing area of Broker Liability that continues to gain traction—it is the essence of “Broker Busting ‘B.A.S.I.C.s”. The basic theory underlying the negligent hiring cause of action is that the broker had a duty to exercise reasonable care when selecting the carrier it contracted with for delivery of the load. This cause of action has become an increasingly powerful one as technology has advanced. Brokers now have real-time access to the most up-to-date safety statistics available from the Federal Government, yet many large brokers are fighting against the use of those statistics by brokers. It is easy to see, however, the power of this cause of action where, for example, a broker selects a carrier that has poor Hours of Service Safety Scores without checking the latest safety statistics, and the carrier’s driver then falls asleep and causes a wreck. Because this is such a powerful cause of action in such situations, the Broker Industry is fighting these cases and use of the safety statistics with guns blazing.
In the next article, we’ll talk more about the Alphabet Soup, specifically looking into What is a Freight Broker and Who Else Is Involved?—the “Shipping Shell Game”