California Court of Appeals Rules on Liability of Motor Carrier for Negligence of Contract Driver

The California Court of Appeals addressed whether a motor carrier responsible for transporting goods across the country can be held liable for the negligence of an independent contractor driver.

The facts of this case center on an automobile accident involving a tractor-trailer.  Mr. Villalobos was driving the tractor-trailer, and Mr. Vargas was in the sleeper berth when the vehicle rolled over, injuring Mr. Vargas.  Mr. Vargas then filed a lawsuit against the motor carrier and trailer owner (FMI), the tractor owner (Eves Express, Inc.), and Mr. Villalobos. The trial court concluded that FMI and Eves were not vicariously liable for Mr. Villalobos’ alleged negligence.

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Mr. Vargas appealed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment.  He contends that FMI owed him a nondelegable duty of care, and they are vicariously liable for Mr. Villalobos’ negligence, and that Eves Express is also vicariously liable. In response, FMI argued that, since they hired independent contractors, they implicitly delegated to the independent contractor any tort law duty they may owe the contractor or the contractor’s employees to ensure workplace safety.

The facts of this case involve the transportation of goods through tractor-trailers.  Here, FMI, a federally licensed motor carrier, was retained to deliver goods from California to New Jersey.  Eves Express is a contractor, and two of their drivers, Mr. Villalobos and Mr. Vargas, were selected to make the trip, connecting the tractor to a trailer. Approximately four hours into their drive, Mr. Villalobos lost control of the tractor-trailer. Mr. Vargas was sleeping in the sleeping berth.  After the vehicle hit a center divider, it rolled over, injuring Mr. Vargas.

On appeal, the court reviewed the trial court’s ruling on summary judgment de novo, which means that they do not give deference to the views of the trial court.  Assuming the status of Mr. Vargas and Mr. Villalobos as independent contractors, the court addressed the issue of when a hirer is vicariously liable for injuries caused by the negligence of an independent contractor in the workplace. Unique to this case, the federal Motor Carrier Act is analyzed by the court, since FMI operated under this Act.

Under California law, an employer who hires an independent contractor is generally not liable to third parties if the independent contractor negligently causes injuries. This is due to the lack of control regarding the mode of doing the contracted work. Over time, however, exceptions apply, and relevant to the case at hand are the doctrines of peculiar risk and nondelegable duties.

The peculiar risk doctrine is an exception to the common law rule that hirers, or employers, are not liable for torts committed by independent contractors. Liability is imposed on the person who hires an independent contractor, if that contractor negligently performs work that is inherently dangerous. The purpose of the doctrine is to ensure that injuries during this kind of work will be compensated and that the person who benefits from this work bears the responsibility for risks of injury to others, as well as preventing injuries.

The nondelegable duties doctrine prevents a responsible party from evading liability by claiming they delegated that duty to an independent contractor hired to do the work. The appeals court cited section 428 of the Restatement of Torts, which provides that an individual or corporation performing under a franchise granted by public authority, and presenting an unreasonable risk of harm to others, is subject to liability for physical harm caused to others by the negligence of a contractor employed to do that work.

In the case at hand, the appellate court stated that the trial court erred in holding that a hirer cannot be vicariously liable to an independent contractor. FMI urged the court to conclude that unless it was actively negligent, it cannot be liable to an individual hired by its independent contractor.

The appellate court, after reviewing caselaw, summarized that those cases did not address claims under the Restatement Second of Torts, section 428, concerning a hirer who has independent contractors carrying out work under a franchise granted by public authority, involving unreasonable risk of harm.

Here, the court stated that Mr. Vargas’ complaint pled a claim under section 428, since he alleged that FMI operated the vehicle under a public franchise. The court stated that the unique nature of this claim requires it to be treated differently from a standard vicarious liability cause of action. Since section 428 deals with the grant of a public franchise or license, it requires compliance with statutory prerequisites in order to ensure public safety. Practically, the court stated that if the duties imposed on a public licensee could be delegated, a public licensing scheme would be meaningless. A licensee could simply hire an independent contractor.

The appeals court addressed the statutory requirements governing a motor carrier’s control over its independent contractors, since FMI has a right to operate on interstate highways. The Federal Motor Carrier Act regulates transportation that is provided as a motor carrier, or a person providing motor vehicle transportation for compensation. The court discussed the control and financial responsibility of motor carriers, as set forth by law.

Next the court addressed whether motor carriers are liable to drivers of leased vehicles for the negligence of co-drivers or vehicle owners. At issue is the delegation of control. In certain cases, when an independent contractor is hired, the hirer delegates the responsibility of performing the work to the contractor. But the present case involves the Federal Motor Carrier Act, which prohibits delegating from motor carriers to independent contractors the responsibility to operate vehicles.

The court stated that FMI retained exclusive possession, control, and use of the equipment, and it did not delegate complete authority over the manner in which the transportation was conducted. Other federal circuit court decisions, including a California case, held that motor carriers are in fact liable for injuries to an independent contractor’s drivers. In sum, while a motor carrier acts through an independent contractor driving a leased vehicle, it is the motor carrier’s ultimate responsibility to assure the safety of the vehicle. The policy rationale of the act supports this holding, since motor carriers cannot delegate to independent contractors the duty to safely operate their vehicles on public highways.

In conclusion, the trial court erred in their holding that FMI is not vicariously liable for Mr. Villalobos’ negligence. The judgment and grant of summary judgment for FMI was reversed, and Mr. Vargas was awarded costs on appeal.

This case involved complex issues of negligence, due to the complex nature of the employer/employee relationships. At Sharifi Firm, we help victims of truck accidents understand their legal rights and options, and we offer a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Rules on Trucking Accident Workers’ Compensation Case, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, May 4, 2015

California Court of Appeals Rules on Insurance Issue in Tractor Trailer Wrongful Death Case, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, March 24, 2015

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