Crocker v. Morales-Santana – Trucking Accident Liability


Vicarious liability is a huge issue in truck crash lawsuits, mostly because many businesses in trucking industry have taken numerous steps to distance themselves from responsibility for accidents.

Carriers hire “independent contractor” drivers. Large corporations are split so that the trucks and trailers are separately leased (and therefore a step removed from the liability of the driver). Brokers insist on carrier agreements that demand indemnity for litigation.

All of this can make success in a truck accident lawsuit difficult and will always require the help of an experience personal injury or wrongful death law firm.

For example, just because a driver is labeled as “independent” doesn’t necessarily make him so. If the court finds that driver is in fact an employee,  vicarious liability (liability for the driver’s action) will be applicable. Similarly, if a parent corporation controls both the carrier and the company that leases the fleet, that kind of close relationship could lead the court to find both companies should be held accountable.

Our experienced Fort Myers truck accident lawyers note some of these issues arose recently in the case of Crocker v. Morales-Santana, where the North Dakota Supreme Court was asked to weigh varying issues of liability following a truck crash – involving one firm based in Florida.

According to court records, plaintiff was a sheriff’s deputy aiding a stranded traveler at the side of the highway during a winter storm when he was struck by a truck driver. Plaintiff suffered serious injuries.

He filed suit against the driver, the trucking company and later the broker. Defendant carrier insisted it was not vicariously liable because the driver was an independent contractor. However, further court analysis indicated the firm exercised a significant degree of control over the truck driver’s work, and he was, despite the company’s assertion, an employee for all intents and purposes. That meant the carrier (and the carrier’s insurance company) could be held responsible for paying for his negligence.

However, the issue of the broker’s liability was trickier. The decision ultimately rendered by the North Dakota Supreme Court had much to do with the contract in place between the broker and carrier. The contract indicated the broker would arrange freight-carrying jobs for the carrier, as well as access to the broker’s fleet of trailers. There were provisions indicating each trailer had to be operated by a driver with a valid commercial license who complied with all laws, and the carrier agreed to maintain the appropriate level of insurance to cover any claims of liability arising from operation of those vehicles.

Plaintiff asserted the broker/defendant was vicariously liable because it was part of a joint business venture with the driver’s employer.

However, the state supreme court ultimately disagreed. The broker was not the driver’s employer simply because he was driving the broker’s truck or because there was a trailer interchange agreement, which, the court ruled, was not legally a “joint venture.”

Still, this does not mean plaintiff was unable to collect damages. The trial court rendered – and appellate court later upheld – a verdict for $300,000 in compensation from the carrier. Because of joint several liability statutes in that state, whatever the truck driver can’t/doesn’t pay, the carrier will be responsible for covering.

Because these cases can be more complex than they might appear on the surface, it’s imperative to contact an experienced injury lawyer as soon as possible after a trucking accident.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (561) 347-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Crocker v. Morales-Santana, September 2014, North Dakota Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Stratton v. Wallace – Trucking Companies Try to Sidestep Liability With Graves Amendment, Aug. 20, 2014, Fort Myers Trucking Accident Lawyer