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When is a Trucking Company a “Motor Carrier” in Texas?

excavatorIn a 2016 Texas truck accident case, the plaintiffs sued an excavating company. The accident caused a pileup, and when the sheriff investigated, it found that it was caused by the driver of an 18-wheeler. The trailer being pulled had the excavating company’s name and motor carrier number on it. The 18-wheeler hit a cement truck on I-30. Both moved toward the center guard lane, with the cement truck crossing over the guardrail and rolling, hitting vehicles in its path, including the plaintiff’s car. The front of the 18-wheeler also crossed the guardrail and wound up on the other side.

The plaintiffs intervened in a lawsuit filed by many other plaintiffs, including the driver of the cement truck. The claim of all of these accident victims was that the tractor-trailer driver’s negligence was the cause of the collision and that his employer under common law and the FMCSA regulations, as well as the Texas transportation code, was the excavating company, which was vicariously liable. The plaintiffs also argued the driver and truck driver were grossly negligent and sued the company for negligent supervision, negligent entrustment, negligent retention, and negligent hiring.

A jury trial was resolved in the plaintiff’s favor, such that the company was determined to be vicariously liable for its driver’s negligence. Judgment was rendered against the employer and the driver jointly and severally, and they were ordered to pay the plaintiffs a little less than $1 million.

The employer appealed, arguing that it wasn’t vicariously liable for its driver’s negligence because it wasn’t the driver’s employer under the relevant safety regulations. It argued that even if it were to be considered an employer, it didn’t owe a legal duty to the plaintiffs because the employer wasn’t acting in the scope of employment. It also argued that the evidence showed the driver’s negligence was not the legal cause of the accident. It argued the judgment should be reversed, and a reduced judgment should be entered.

The appellate court explained that in Texas, motor carrier safety regulations are meant to ensure that trucks are safely maintained and operated and that appropriate parties are compensated. The commercial motor vehicle needs to meet certain safety standards, the owner must carry a certain amount of liability insurance, and the vehicle must display the name of the operator and its motor carrier registration number on each side of the power unit. Financial responsibility lies with the motor carrier when a negligent driver of a commercial motor vehicle causes an accident under Texas Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Under Texas Transportation Code section 641.001, a motor carrier is an entity that directs or operates one or more vehicles transporting people or cargo over a Texas road. In deciding whether a particular defendant is considered the motor carrier, it doesn’t matter whether the defendant is generally authorized to operate as such.

In this case, the company’s president testified that they performed excavation at construction sites, and this work required them to move dirt and other substances. They moved these substances through the work of independent contractors like the defendant driver. In this case, the driver worked exclusively for the company from 2004-2010. The company argued it controlled only the loading site and told drivers where to deliver materials, but it didn’t control which route drivers took and didn’t provide a hauling permit.

The appellate court found that the company met the definition of motor carrier because it directed the operation of the 18-wheeler at the time of the collision. Therefore, it was the driver’s statutory employer. It also found enough evidence to support the damages award and affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

If you are hurt in a truck accident, the experienced San Antonio attorneys at Carabin & Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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