Stratton v. Wallace – Trucking Companies Try to Sidestep Liability With Graves Amendment


When a trucker, busy perusing pornography behind the wheel, crashed into a disabled vehicle and killed the driver, her family sued not only the trucker, but also the man’s employer and the owner of the truck.

New York, like Florida, has broad laws on who may be held liable in the event of a crash. However, the defendant attempted to shield itself using the “Graves Amendment,” a law passed in 2005 with the intended purpose of shielding rental car companies from liability stemming from negligent driving by customers.

Recently, a federal judge reviewing Stratton v. Wallace rejected this argument, creating an important precedent in the current legal landscape. That’s because, as our Naples truck accident lawyers understand it, this defendant, a large trucking agency, has done something many others have in recent years in an effort to skirt responsibility for negligent drivers. It created several smaller affiliates, which then leased the trucks (and in some cases, labor) to the “sister company” within the same corporate family. By creating this degree of separation, firms reason they can evade liability statutes.

In Stratton, the judge found that because the company that owned the truck was “affiliated” with the company that leased it, by way of their shared parent company, both firms and the parent company could be held liable.

According to court records, the underlying facts of the case:

In 2009, a 33-year-old woman’s vehicle was rendered disabled after she struck a deer on a state highway. As she waited on the shoulder for assistance, a man operating a semi-truck came barreling up behind her. At the time, he was scanning through pornographic images on his laptop computer. He veered off the road, striking the disabled vehicle. The woman inside was killed instantly.

The driver was arrested, convicted and sentenced to serve between 3 and 9 years in prison for second-degree manslaughter.

Her husband filed a civil lawsuit against the truck driver, his employer, the owner of the tractor-trailer and the company that owned both the employer and the vehicle owner.

The vehicle owner filed a motion for summary judgment, citing the Graves Amendment. While state law in New York (similar to Florida) allows for the owner of a vehicle to be held liable for accidents involving that vehicle, even if the vehicle was operated by someone else, federal law precludes this action in certain cases.

The Graves Amendment abolishes liability in most cases for companies that rent or lease motor vehicles based on the negligent driving of their customers.

However, the judge differentiated the circumstances in this case from a “run-of-the-mill Graves Amendment case.” Here, the vehicle owner and operator are closer than arm’s length. Instead of being bound simply by a rental or lease contract, the parties here were owned by the same parent company. Additionally, the judge noted the Graves Amendment would only be applicable if the owner of the vehicle is only in the business of leasing or renting vehicles, and the company and/or its affiliates is not accused of any direct negligence or criminal wrongdoing. But in this situation, the employer is accused specifically of negligence (hiring, training, supervision, etc.)

The judge conceded the leasing company’s negligence would be “passive,” but held nonetheless is not protected under Graves.

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:

Lane v. Ballot – How a Criminal Conviction Can Help a Personal Injury Case, Aug. 16, 2014, Naples Car Accident Lawyer Blog