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Lohr v. Zehner

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

June 3, 2014

RICHARD I. LOHR, II, as Administrator of the Estate of Charles David Fancher, Deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
JOSEPH EARL ZEHNER, III, et al., Defendants.

OPINION

MYRON H. THOMPSON, District Judge.

Plaintiff Richard I. Lohr, II, as administrator of the estate of Charles David Fancher, filed this lawsuit against defendant Wilmac Enterprises, LLC, among other defendants. The lawsuit arises out of a series of highway collisions that resulted in Fancher's death. The cause is before the court on Wilmac's motion for summary judgment, which argues that it should not be vicariously liable for the involvement of co-defendant Ricky Briggs in the collision.[1]

I. LEGAL STANDARD

"A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought. The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The court must view the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

II. BACKGROUND

Briggs is an independent owner-operator of a truck. Earlier, he signed a one-year independent-contractor lease agreement with Wilmac. Under the agreement, he leased his tractor to Wilmac and granted the company "exclusive possession, control, and use of the equipment to the extent of complying with the applicable rules of appropriate government agencies" during the term of the lease.[2] Agreement, Wilmac Ex. 4 (Doc. No. 105-4) at § 3(B). In exchange, the company would "exercise reasonable efforts to provide freight for hauling by [Briggs] to permit [him] to keep the equipment in regular use, " id. at § 5, and compensate him with a portion of any proceeds of his hauls. The company provided Briggs with identifying placards, which included the Wilmac logo and MC Number, ' which in turn provided authority to operate in interstate commerce, as required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Wilmac also argues that it terminated this lease agreement on June 30, 2011, and the company provides evidence to that effect. However, there is no evidence that Wilmac notified Briggs of the lease termination or requested return of its identifying placards and MC Number.

In late July 2011, Briggs received a call from Kevin Gibson, the owner of co-defendant Kevin G. Transportation, Inc. Gibson offered Briggs a job carrying a trailer of empty cans to the Coca-Cola plant south of Montgomery, Alabama. Briggs accepted the job and followed Gibson's instructions as to how and where to pick up a trailer and a load. He did not contact Wilmac and, after the job, did not give Wilmac any portion of the funds.

Early in the morning of August 1, 2011, Briggs was finishing the Coca-Cola job for Kevin G. Transportation when he was struck from behind in the first of a series of collisions leading to Fancher's death. After the accident, he called Gibson but did not contact Wilmac or notify the company of the accident. He testified in deposition that, at the time of the accident, he understood himself to be working for Kevin G. Transportation, but operating under the authority of Wilmac.

III. DISCUSSION

Wilmac argues that it should not be held liable for Briggs's actions because it had terminated his lease a month prior to the accident. Furthermore, the company argues that, even if the lease were not terminated, liability should not attach because Briggs, by hauling material for Kevin G. Transportation, was acting outside the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. Estate administrator Lohr counters that the company is liable for Briggs's actions under a strict lease-liability theory or, if the court finds that the lease was terminated before the accident, an apparent-authority theory.

The court holds that, even if the lease between Briggs and Wilmac had not been terminated, Wilmac is still not vicariously liable for Briggs's actions because Briggs was operating the vehicle entirely outside the scope of his relationship with Wilmac at the time of the accident.

Lease agreements between truck owners and interstate motor carriers have been subject to extensive, and changing, federal regulation for more than 50 years. In the mid-1950s, Congress discovered that such arrangements were increasingly common in the interstate motor-carrier industry. Instead of owning a fleet of trucks and hiring employees to drive those trucks, motor carriers were contracting with independent owner-operators but exercising significant control over those contractors' equipment and operation. Congress developed legislation in order "to correct abuses that had arisen under often fly-by-night arrangements, " arrangements that had led to "a helter-skelter operation of thousands of unregulated vehicles on the highways as a menace to safety." Simmons v. King , 478 F.2d 857, 866-67 (5th Cir. 1973).[3] The legislation enabled the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate the leasing of trucking equipment.[4] After extensive proceedings, the commission promulgated regulations governing lease arrangements such as Briggs's. See 49 C.F.R. § 376.12(c) ("The lease shall provide that the authorized carrier lessee shall have exclusive possession, control, and use of the equipment for the duration of the lease. The lease shall further provide that the authorized carrier lessee shall assume complete responsibility for the operation of the equipment for the duration of the lease.").

This exclusive-control regulation, along with corresponding language in lease agreements, has led to significant litigation across federal and state courts concerning the extent of motor carriers' vicarious liability to the public for negligent and wanton acts by the drivers of their leased vehicles. Courts have interpreted the regulations to impose various forms of vicarious liability on motor carriers. At first, some courts imposed so-called logo liability' for all negligence involving a vehicle that displayed a carrier's identifying placards and motor-carrier number, regardless of the existence of a lease. See Mellon National Bank & Trust Co. v. Sophie Lines, Inc. , 289 F.2d 473 (3d Cir. 1961) (imposing strict liability after a lease had been terminated because the motor carrier had not yet collected its placards from the driver/lessor) superseded by regulation, Lease & Interchange of Vehicles (Identification Devices) (49 C.F.R. Part 1057), 3 I.C.C.2d 92, 95-97 (1986) as recognized in Jackson v. O'Shields , 101 F.3d 1083, 1086-87 (5th Cir. 1996). Other courts imposed vicarious liability that mirrored traditional respondeat-superior principles, covering only those actions that were reasonably within the scope of employment for the motor carrier. See Wilcox v. Transam. Freight Lines, Inc. , 371 F.2d 403, 404 (6th Cir. 1967) ("In our opinion, the I.C.C. regulations do not impose a liability on a carrier using leased equipment greater than that when operating its own equipment."). Finally, many courts imposed strict-lease liability: so long as there was a lease in effect, "exclusive control" and "complete responsibility" meant that the motor carrier was liable for any negligence involving the vehicle under lease. See Morris v. JTM Materials, Inc. , 78 S.W.3d 28, 38-43 (Tex. Ct. App. 2002).

The former Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided one case involving motor-carrier liability for the injury, to a member of the public, resulting from negligence involving a leased vehicle. In Simmons v. King , 478 F.2d 857, the court held that, although there was not an agency relationship between the carrier and the driver under the applicable state law, the federal-lease regulations established such a relationship. 478 F.2d at 865-67. ...


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