As many of you may or may not know, one of my many jobs is to review court cases that involve motor carriers and independent contractors. If I see a case that is interesting, I save it in an applicable state folder so that if any NTA member in that state who thinks they may have a problem doesn’t make the same mistake as others and gets dragged into court. With that in mind, here is a case where a passenger vehicle lost control and crossed over the roadway in front of a tractor-trailer. One would think that the passenger vehicle, even after admitting they were at fault, would lose this case hands down but no, the motor carrier wound up the guilty party.
This case shows the depths that some plaintiff’s attorneys will go to spin things around to win a case against a motor carrier, even when their client is clearly at fault. Every private and for-hire motor carrier, no matter how small or large, should take note of this case. This is why driver qualification files, background checks, and written policies play an important role in your business operations.
In the case Werner Enterprises v. Blake, the Court of Appeals of Texas affirmed the jury verdict against a motor carrier and its driver for $116 million in a case resulting in the death of a seven year old and TBI/quadriplegia to a twelve year old, as well as other injuries to the occupants of the passenger vehicle that collided with the Werner tractor-trailer during an ice storm in December 2014. The appellate court found that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to establish the verdict. It found that the truck driver owed a duty to the plaintiffs and breached that duty by driving “more than a crawl” during the ice storm.
The court further found that the defendants failed to preserve certain objections to jury instructions presented at trial. The court affirmed the trial court’s refusal to provide a sudden emergency instruction where the court provided, as an alternative, an unavoidable accident instruction. The court rejected the appellant’s (Werner) arguments that the plaintiffs could not pursue direct liability claims of negligence against the motor carrier because it had admitted it was vicariously liable for the negligence of the driver of the vehicle, with the court noting that the “respondent superior admission rule” has not been recognized in that District at the time of the jury verdict, and moreover, even assuming it did apply, the motor carrier’s gross negligence would be enough to avoid application of the rule.
The court then found there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s findings against the motor carrier on the direct liability claims, finding that the motor carrier placed an inexperienced and unskilled driver in a situation that was reasonably likely to result in foreseeable harm to members of the motoring public. Specific evidence cited by the appellate court included the following:
(1) Werner actively denied the driver access to devices which would have conveyed relevant information concerning the weather and road conditions into which he was driving during a Winter Storm Warning while traveling at approximately 50 miles per hour on a just-in-time (JIT) delivery; (2) the driver received the second lowest score possible on his driving exam; (3) the driver was nonetheless entrusted with a JIT run through a Winter Storm Warning without access to relevant information or a supervisor who was awake; (4) Werner’s director of safety was unfamiliar with Werner’s practice of pairing student drivers with trainers on JIT deliveries; (5) it is “really important for the driver to monitor outside air temperature, because we know once it drops below 32 degrees, that’s the condition that creates freezing water and therefore, freezing rain and black ice;” and lastly (6) despite this importance, the truck driver was actively and knowingly prevented from monitoring the outside air temperature.
The court went on to hold that the evidence was sufficient to establish the motor carrier failed its duty to properly train the driver. The appellate court further affirmed various evidentiary rulings made by the trial court, over the objection of defendants. Notably, there were two dissenting opinions to the majority decision. Don’t be a victim. Let us help protect you! NTA supplies more knowledgeable information to keep America’s private and for-hire motor carriers up to date on matters that could affect their profit and loss reports than any other association. Call us at (800) 805-0040 today.
This next story is a little bit on the lighter side. States need to be more careful about what they put on their license plates. It’s not uncommon for license plates to bear some kind of web address. Often it leads to a state government website or the local DMV. In Maryland, though, things have gone awry, with around 800,000 license plates inadvertently advertising a gambling site from the Philippines. The issue came about when Maryland redesigned its license plates to celebrate the bicentenary of the War of 1812. The plate became standard issue in mid-2010. It was initially intended for the design to be issued until June 2015, but instead remained Maryland’s standard plate until September 2016. The plate bears a design featuring the US flag, and a silhouette of Fort McHenry, along with the URL www.starspangled200.org. This was all fine, until recently, when the registration of the URL lapsed.
Up until late 2022, that URL led to a website with historical information on the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. However, according to ICANN records, the domain’s registration lapsed sometime around September 2022, when it was registered by a new anonymous owner. After that, the URL was redirected to a website promoting online casinos based in the Philippines. The issue first surfaced on Reddit, before later coming to the attention of state officials. Since the plates were standard issue in Maryland for many years, there are plenty of cars in the state now essentially advertising online gambling. An official for the Department of Transportation said there are about 798,000 active registered plates currently bearing the War of 1812 design.
The issue may prove difficult to rectify. The URL used on the plates was registered by the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, not the Maryland Department of Transportation. Beyond that, the domain’s new owner is under no obligation to return the site. The possible solutions aren’t attractive. The state could purchase back the domain but would have to pay whatever sum the new owner demands, or it could reissue new plates and eat the cost.
Realistically, it’s not a major issue that causes anyone great harm. However, it’s a good lesson for transport officials going forward. Don’t put a URL on a license plate unless you’re confident the state will have control over it for the foreseeable future.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Before going to press, the URL was checked, and it now properly redirects to the Maryland Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Administration page, so apparently, they got the domain back – but at what cost?