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Truck wreck kills three in hazardous weather

In my trucking litigation law practice, I all too often see fatal truck accidents that happen in bad weather Despite a federal safety regulation requiring “extreme caution” in hazardous weather, and instructions in the Commercial Drivers License Manual to slow down by at least one-third, truckers under economic pressure from employers, shippers, and sometimes their own creditors, too often speed ahead through rain and snow.

The most recent such crash in the news was yesterday on I-81in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a road I know well.

It happened about 11:30 a.m. near New Market, Virginia. The road was slickened by snow. A big rig operated by Jose Alberto Sarmiento of Texas, hit several vehicles before rear-ending of a Ford Escort, killing three members of a Virginia family.

According to a report by Pete DeLea in the Daily News Record of Harrisonburg, VA, Sarmiento has been charged with reckless driving and three counts of felony involuntary manslaughter.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, 49 C.F.R. § 392.14 requires:

Extreme caution in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle shall be exercised when hazardous conditions, such as those caused by snow, ice, sleet, fog, mist, rain, dust, or smoke, adversely affect visibility or traction. Speed shall be reduced when such conditions exist. If conditions become sufficiently dangerous, the operation of the commercial motor vehicle shall be discontinued and shall not be resumed until the commercial motor vehicle can be safely operated. Whenever compliance with the foregoing provisions of this rule increases hazard to passengers, the commercial motor vehicle may be operated to the nearest point at which the safety of passengers is assured.

Every reported case that addresses the issue agrees that it is reversible error for a trial court not to instruct a jury on this “extreme caution” standard.

In Crooks v. Sammons Trucking, Inc., 2001 WL 1654986 (Cal.App. 3 Dist.,2001), a tractor trailer sped through blowing snow until striking another tractor trailer. The trial court denied a request to charge on the “extreme caution” standard under 49 C.F.R.§ 392.14, instructing the jury instead on the state standard of ordinary negligence. The appellate court reversed, holding that the trial court should have charged on the higher federal regulatory standard rather than the lower standard provided by state law. The same decision was reached in Weaver v. Chavez, 133 Cal.App.4th 1350, 35 Cal.Rptr.3d 514 (Cal.App. 2 Dist.,2005). Clearly, if the federal “extreme caution” standard preempts a state rule of “ordinary care,” the reasons are even stronger for it to preempt a state standard of “willful or wanton misconduct.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court in George v. Estate of Baker, 724 N.W.2d 1 (Minn.,2006), held that it was reversible error to give a “curative” instruction contradicting an attorney’s argument that a “reasonable care” standard did not apply, even though the full instructions included reference to standards of “utmost care” and “extreme caution.”

In Kentucky, Jurek v. Hubbs, 2004 WL 1487116 (Ky.App.,2004), involved denial of the plaintiff’s motion for directed verdict based on 49 C.F.R.§ 392.14 rather than jury instructions. However, the court recognized that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety “regulations govern the operation of commercial motor vehicles in the United States. To the extent that they establish a standard of care higher than the law, ordinances, or regulations of a particular state jurisdiction, a commercial driver must comply with the FMSCR.”

The Virginia Supreme Court held, in Kimberlin v. PM Transport, Inc., 264 Va. 261, 563 S.E.2d 665 (Va.,2002), that it was reversible error to direct a verdict for the defendant where there was a question of fact whether truck driver violated the duty created by 49 C.F.R.§ 392.14 to exercise extreme caution under hazardous conditions and whether violation of such duty was a proximate cause of the accident. The court noted that while violation of the regulation does “not constitute negligence per se [It] simply creates an expanded duty of care for the operation of commercial motor vehicles under the conditions stated therein.”563 S.E.2d at 668-69.

Ken Shigley is on the National Advisory Board for the Association of Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America, and is actively involved in the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice. He is a former chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Litigation Institute, co-sponsored by the Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina Trial Lawyers Associations. He practices statewide in Georgia, and on selective cases appear pro hac vice in cases in courts of other states. A member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, he has successfully tried trucking accident cases to multimillion dollar verdict. He has lectured on trucking litigation topics at continuing legal education programs. A Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, he is also a Master of the Lamar Inn of Court at Emory Law School, a faculty member for ten years at the Emory University Law School Trial Techniques Program. He currently serves as Secretary of the 40,000 member State Bar of Georgia, is a member of the Georgia Courts Automation Commission, chair of the Georgia Bar’s Electronic Court Filing Committee, and is a trustee of the Institute for Continuing Legal Education in Georgia, the Georgia Bar Foundation, and the Lawyers Foundation of Georgia.