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Truck accident facts may support punitive damages claims

For attorneys representing plaintiffs in trucking accident cases in Georgia, the claim for punitive damages is an important but not always crucial part of the case.

Punitive damages under Georgia law are designed to “penalize, punish or deter” conduct that shows “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” Proof must be by “clear and convincing evidence.” O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations are a starting point for the use of corporate conduct as a foundation for punitive damages.

49 C.F.R. § 390.13 provides that a motor carrier should not aid, abet, encourage, or require its employees to violate any of the rules of the FMCSR.

49 C.F.R. § 392.6 provides that no trucking company may schedule a delivery in such a way that would require the driver to operate his or her vehicle at speeds greater than those prescribed by the rules of the road in effect at the location in question.

49 C.F.R. § 395.3 provides that no trucking company shall permit or require any driver to exceed the maximum hours of driving time allowed under the FMCSR. All trucking companies “shall systematically inspect, repair, and maintain, or cause to be systematically inspected, repaired, and maintained, all motor vehicles subject to its controls.” This general duty of a trucking company to maintain its vehicles in good working order includes a duty to maintain repair records and inspection reports and driver reports, which are to be filed by a driver each day on each vehicle driven, 49 C.F.R. § 396.11, and a duty to make periodic inspections of each vehicle, 49 C.F.R. § 396.11.

Courts may also consider the applicable administrative interpretations included in the official Regulatory Guidance for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, 62 Fed.Reg. 16370 (1997). For example, the Regulatory Guidance includes the following official interpretations of the regulations:
Question 7: What is the liability of a motor carrier for hours of service violations?
Guidance: The carrier is liable for violations of the hours of service regulations if it had or should have had the means by which to detect the violations. Liability under the FMCSRs does not depend upon actual knowledge of the violations.
Question 8: Are carriers liable for the actions of their employees even though the carrier contends that it did not require or permit the violations to occur?
Guidance: Yes. Carriers are liable for the actions of their employees. Neither intent to commit, nor actual knowledge of, a violation is a necessary element of that liability. Carriers “permit” violations of the hours of service regulations by their employees if they fail to have in place management systems that effectively prevent such violations.
In interpretation of 49 C.F.R. § 395.8, the regulatory guidance states:
Question 21: What is the carrier’s liability when its drivers falsify records of duty status?
Guidance: A carrier is liable both for the actions of its drivers in submitting false documents and for its own actions in accepting false documents. 62 Fed.Reg. at 16426. In short, “Motor carriers have a duty to require drivers to observe the FMCSRs.” Id.

The national body of law supporting punitive damages in trucking case includes:

Came v. Micou, 2005 WL 1500978 (M.D.Pa.,2005). Factors considered as “reckless indifference to the rights of others” were failure to monitor the truck driver’s conduct, failure to conduct any investigation into the driver’s hours of service, re-dispatching the truck driver even though he had exceeded his hour of service limitations; and failure to have effective procedures in place to verify drivers’ hours of service when the company knew that hours of service regulations were in place to protect the safety of the monitoring public. These facts involved violations of numerous FMCSRs.

Trotter v. B & W Cartage Co., Inc., 2006 WL 1004882 (S.D.Ill.,2006). There was evidence in that case of violation of hours of service rules, fatigued driving, falsification of driver logs, and failure of management to adequately monitor drivers’ hours. The conduct of B & W employees like the managers of the company’s terminals was such as to send a message to drivers that hours of service violations were acceptable conduct.

Bridges ex rel Wrongful Death Beneficiaries v. Enterprise Products Co., Inc., 2007 WL 433242 (S.D.Miss.,2007). Violation of hours of service rules and falsification of driver logs supported denial of partial summary judgment on punitive damages.

Esteras v. TRW, Inc., 2006 WL 2474049 (M.D.Pa.,2006). Trucking company delegated maintenance, but facts allowed jury to find “failure to properly inspect and maintain the tractor/truck . . . constitutes reckless indifference to the rights of others.”

Ricker v. Southwind Trucking, Inc., C.A. NO. 4:05-CV-0223-HLM, Northern District of Georgia, decided March 15, 2007. This was our case. The driver had destroyed log pages and replaced them with pages showing himself off duty when in fact he had been driving from Ohio to Georgia and back, began the trip in question after a one hour nap at a shipper’s terminal, “pushed times back” by about five hours on the trip log to make himself look legal the next day, and at the time of the crash had been driving 20 of the previous 24 hours. The trucking company failed to have any management system for effectively monitoring drivers’ hours and relied solely upon drivers to inform management that they could not take a load due to hours. There was no effort to cross-check dispatch records against driver logs. The court concluded a jury could conclude the company “turned a blind eye” to its drivers’ hours of service compliance, and “was consciously indifferent” to compliance.

Garrett v. Albright, 2008 WL 795613 (W.D.Mo.,2008). Driver had had a heart attack and a stroke, took unreported prescription medications when driving, had a history of frequent driver log violations, falsified log entries on the subject trip, and was fatigued. Company provided only the most minimal training, and disregarded a written policy not to pay drivers who had not turned in log books.

J. B. Hunt Transport, Inc., v. Bentley, 427 S.E. 2d 499 (Ga. App., 1993). Forced dispatch system.

Smith v. Tommy Roberts Trucking Co., 209 Ga.App. 826, 828(2), 435 S.E.2d 54 (1993). Driver paid for fast driving, quick deliveries, in hurry to deliver load; employer knew of two moving violations, and failed to check bad driving record.

Shinn v. Greeness, 218 FRD 478 (M.D.N.C., 2003). Rigorous delivery schedule and penalties for late deliveries,

Glenn McClendon Trucking Co., Inc. v. Williams, 359 S.E. 2d 351 (Ga. App. 1987). Company denied mechanics access to tool required for repairs, knowing risk of hazard.Driver ignored smoking brakes, failure to stop until brake drum falls apart.

Cloaninger v. Wheeler, 2006 WL 3782702 (W.D. N.C., 2006). Failure to discipline truck driver after learning of his moving violations.

Stewart v. Mitchell Transport, 241 F. Supp. 1216 (D. Kan., 2002). Combination of knowledge of safety issues, speed, use of radar detector, driver’s history of violations, and lack of qualifications of safety director.

Osborne Truck Lines, Inc. v. Langston, 454 So. 2d 1317 (Ala., 1984). Fatigue inferred from circumstances of length of time driven, and knowledge may be inferred from circumstances.

Fowler v. Smith, 237 Ga.App. 841, 516 S.E.2d 845 (1999). Violated 49 CFR § 392.22(b) by being stopped in the interstate’s center lane for approximately 35 minutes before the collision without placing triangular warning devices on the highway, and that he did not turn on his tractor-trailer lights after it became dark.

Ken Shigley, of the Shigley Law Firm, LLC, in Atlanta, Georgia, was chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Litigation Institute, is involved as a seminar speaker for the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice, and is on the National Advisory Board and serves as a seminar speaker for the Association of Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America. A Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, he is also Secretary of the 39,000 member State Bar of Georgiaa and a Master of the Lamar Inn of Court at Emory Law School. He handles cases all over Georgia, from Calhoun to Valdosta, and from LaGrange to Hoschton.

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