Supreme Court Makes Suing Trucking Companies More Onerous

The Supreme Court of Texas released a decision Friday that further limits the rights of victims to seek compensation in tractor-trailer accident cases. 

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The court decided that the company that contracted with the truck driver’s employer could not be held liable under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations or the Texas regulations that codify the FMCS rules. The court also decided that the evidence did not prove vicarious liability of the company for the independent contractor’s fatal injuries because it did not retain sufficient control over the driver. 

Gonzalez v. Ramirez

Gonzalez, the owner of Gonzalez Farms, agreed to harvest and transport silage for another farm. Gonzalez contracted with 3R/Garcia Trucking, which was owned by Garcia, to transport the feed to a feed yard. For each delivery, Gonzalez’s harvester operators loaded the truck and signaled for the driver to leave once the truck was full.

On October 5, 2009 Garcia sent a tandem truck and a new driver, Ramirez, to complete the delivery. As he drove his first load to the feed yard, a tire on Ramirez’s truck blew out, causing him to lose control of his vehicle and swerve into oncoming traffic. The truck collided head-on into the car carrying Tammy Jackson and her fourteen-year-old daughter, Rexee Jo. All three died in the wreck.
The lawsuit filed by the ex-husband of Tammy and father of their child, Samuel Jackson, against Gonzalez alleged that negligent overloading and negligent hiring were responsible for the accident that killed his family members. He also alleged Gonzalez was vicariously liable for Garcia’s and Ramirez’s actions based on Gonzalez’s motor carrier designation under the FMCS and Texas laws. 
The driver’s wife and mother also sued Gonzalez and Garcia, under a common law theory of retained control of an independent contractor. 
The Supreme Court heard this case on appeal by Gonzalez of a lower court’s decision ruling that plaintiffs had asserted sufficient facts in their pleadings.

Motor Carrier Liability
Since Texas has not adopted the federal law, 49 C.F.R. §§ 376), the court made its determination as to Gonzalez’s motor carrier status by analyzing Texas laws. The court found that, although Gonzalez did control the loading site, he did not control the trucks, drivers or routes. The court concluded that Gonzalez was acting as a shipper, rather than a motor carrier and held that the motor carrier provisions did not apply to him.The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision to render summary judgment in favor of Gonzalez on Jackson’s claim.
Independent Contractor Duties 
On the claim presented by the driver’s family based on common law, the Supreme Court found:

“Generally, an owner or general contractor does not owe a duty to its independent contractor’s employees to ensure that they safely perform their work… But an owner or general contractor can be held vicariously liable for its independent contractor’s actions if the owner retains some control over the manner in which the contractor performs the work that causes the damage.”
Having determined that Gonzalez did not control the trucks, driver or routes, the court ruled without oral argument that Gonzalez was not vicarious liability for negligence of its independent contractor, the driver’s employer. The court remanded the case to the court of appeals to determine Jackson’s claim for negligent hiring.

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