Truck drivers have tough jobs that often require them to work long hours hauling huge loads across the country. In order to reduce the chances that these drivers will crash (posing serious risks to themselves and others) the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) sets rules and guidelines that dictate things like how much the truck can carry, how many hours the driver can work, what driver qualifications are necessary and what sort of oversight is needed.
In the recent case of Parr v. Breeden before the Missouri Supreme Court, the question was asked whether trucking company supervisors that breach federal regulations create a separate and distinct duty to the drivers aside from the one as employers to provide a safe workplace for all employees. In other words, could the truck driver/ his surviving family members sue the company and/or supervisors individually – despite the exclusive remedy provisions of workers’ compensation law – based on their alleged violation of federal rules.
The court’s response: No.
Now, this does not mean the driver’s family had no avenue for compensation. As the underlying incident was one that occurred in the scope and course of employment, they are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. However, they will not be successful in a separate case against the supervisors individually.
According to court records, the truck driver was killed in a single-vehicle accident while driving his commercial vehicle for his employer. He had been employed by the company from June 2006 through April 2008, which was when he died.
During that time, he was involved in three single-vehicle truck accidents, including the third and fatal one. The first accident occurred after he had been on the job just six months. Nearly one year later, a medical examiner determined he was physically fit to operate a commercial motor vehicle and he was issued a two-year certification. However, six months later, he was involved in another single-vehicle truck accident. Then, just two weeks later, he was involved in a third accident, that one being the one that killed him.
Plaintiffs – the man’s two children and his father – filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the president of the company and two supervisors. Plaintiffs alleged defendants owed a duty to provide a safe working environment to the driver, to monitor his physical condition and ensure he was fit to drive that huge rig and also to ascertain whether he was in compliance with FMCSA regulations. Specifically, plaintiffs argued the supervisors breached their duty by putting the driver back on the road in after his second accident in April 2008 without a proper medical evaluation and also failed to inquire about whether decedent had a health condition that would have contributed to his prior single-vehicle accidents. Further, they alleged the supervisors knew or should have known it wasn’t safe for decedent to drive a truck.
Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing they did not breach their duty to provide a safe working environment, but alternatively, plaintiffs had no cause of action because there was no allegation of an affirmative act outside the employer’s duty to provide a safe working environment.
In support of their position, plaintiffs presented evidence from the November 2007 health report that showed the trucker was an overweight smoker with diabetes, sleep apnea and other health conditions that made it unsafe for him to drive.
Although defendants conceded it was their duty to make sure each of the drivers were safe to operate a commercial vehicle, they nonetheless argued this was not a separate duty from their jobs, which meant any resulting injury in this case would be covered by workers’ compensation.
The trial court agreed, and both the appeals court and the state supreme court affirmed.
It’s worth noting that had this truck driver been in a truck accident that injured or killed someone else, the fact that the company overlooked these serious safety concerns would likely be grounds for victims to pursue punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Parr v. Breeden, June 7, 2016, Missouri Supreme Court
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