Do I Sue the Trucking Company or the Truck Driver?

Michael GrossmanJanuary 04, 2018 6 minutes

Recently, I read about a truck accident that took place up in Hartley County, Texas. An 18-wheeler, driven by Keldrick Chappell of Dallas, 40, allegedly sideswiped a passenger car driven by Stanley Smith, 78. Mr. Smith reportedly died from injuries sustained in the accident.

As much as the accident report, it caught my eye when I came across someone discussing the issue of diversity of citizenship, which results when the victim and the alleged perpetrator do not live in the same city, county, or state. For instance, in this accident, the victim hailed from the Texas panhandle, while the truck driver calls Dallas home. That author clearly laid out the process that courts go through to determine whether any litigation that results from an accident like this is heard by a court where the accident took place or a court where the alleged wrong-doer lives.

Being the contrarian that I am, it occurred to me that there's a third possibility for where a case may be heard, the courts in the county where the trucking company resides. This further led me to realize that there is a more fundamental legal issue that can confuse many people; when a truck driver kills or injures someone, do the victims sue the truck driver or the trucking company?

Who to Sue: The Truck Driver or the Trucking Company?

The short answer is both. Most people understand that a truck driver is a licensed professional and responsible for safely driving their vehicle. When they fail to live up to that duty and someone gets hurt, it makes sense that they're on the hook for any consequences.

Where things get murky in the minds of some is why the trucking company is also on the hook for the bad behavior of their employee. Some folks might think, "It wasn't the company behind the wheel, so how is the accident their fault?"

Even if you don't agree with this logic (and I don't), it's easy to understand why many people feel this way, especially, since that's how the law in this country worked up until the early parts of the 20th century. Before then, courts held that workers were independent agents and that companies weren't necessarily responsible for their actions. If the law were still as it was then, a trucking company would rarely be responsible for the actions of their drivers.

Then judges and legislatures began to realize, "Hey, companies exercise a lot of control over their employees, from what they do, to when to do it, and in most instances, even how they go about doing it. If employers have this much control over their employees, isn't it likely that their decisions can lead to accidents and injuries, not just employee actions?"

There's also the other issue that companies don't have employees just because they like having folks around or want to create jobs. They have employees, because employees further the company's interest, making money. Under the old system, companies got the best of both worlds. They benefited from having employees, in that they made more money, but they didn't incur any costs when an employee's actions hurt someone. The result was that if the employee did their job safely, the company made money and if they didn't, the employee paid the freight.

As I mentioned before, company decisions were often leading to employees doing things in a manner more dangerous that they otherwise would be. An example of this still occurs in the trucking industry today. Some less scrupulous companies through threats or incentives try to get drivers to bend or break hours of service rules. These rules regulate how much a truck driver can drive without a break. Hours of service rules make a trade-off between delivering a load as fast as physically possible, for the safety of truck drivers and others on the roads by making sure that truck drivers get a minimum amount of rest.

We've litigated dozens of cases where a trucking company promised a bonus to a driver if they delivered a load by a certain time. It was left unsaid in these cases that there was no way to make the delivery and to obey hours of service regulations at the same time. Without explicitly telling the driver to break the law, these companies were making an offer to break the law that was difficult to pass up. When these drivers hit and killed people, the unscrupulous trucking companies turned around and tried to say that the accidents were the result of their drivers breaking the rules on their own initiative, not company orders.

Enter the doctrine of respondeat superior, which is Latin for "let the master answer." In the early 20th centuries courts began adopting and applying this doctrine to cases when an employee of the company, in the course of their job, injures someone who is not a part of the company. In these cases, courts determined that the employer, who stands to gain from the employees actions, must also suffer the costs of when the employee screws up and injures someone.

So when a truck driver injures someone in the course of doing their job, both the driver and the company can be sued.

Who to Sue Isn't Quite as Simple as It Seems

The rules outlined above cover the most common relationship of a trucker involved in a serious crash, a trucker who is employed by a trucking company. However, the trucking industry is far more complex and there are several situations where liability for an accident doesn't follow what I laid out above.

For instance, while their ranks have declined over the last several decades, there are still a large number of owner-operators on the roads. As the name implies, in an owner-operator set-up, the driver and the trucking company are one in the same. One guy owns his truck and hauls his own loads. Unless the owner-operator incorporates, there is no trucking company to go after when one of these drivers injures someone.

There are also instances where drivers aren't in the course and scope of employment when an accident happens. This means that a driver is driving somewhere for personal reasons, but doing so in an 18-wheeler. It's not a particularly common scenario, given the high cost of operating an 18-wheeler, but when faced with using the company truck or walking, especially in a remote area, there are times that a driver is not driving on behalf of their employer.

This is a particularly interesting scenario from a legal perspective for a couple of reasons. First, respondeat superior only applies when an employee is in the course and scope of employment, which is just a formal way of saying on the clock and doing work stuff. Obviously, it would be unfair to hold a trucking company accountable for the actions of their employees when they aren't are the clock, furthering the company's interest. So if a truck driver is in their own car, running kids to baseball practice, the trucking company has no interest in that action and exercises no control. That's a regular old car accident if the driver hits someone.

The other thing that makes this scenario interesting is that even when a truck driver is on the clock, it can be tempting for a trucking company to argue that they weren't. The reason they would try to make this argument, even when it doesn't actually apply is pretty clear, it gets the company off the hook and pushes liability solely on to the driver. You may think that I'm conjuring demons that don't actually exist, but we've seen some absolutely crazy behavior from trucking companies trying to duck responsibility for an accident, so crazy that falsely asserting that a driver was joyriding in a company truck does't even make our pulses rise.

There are even instances, while rare, where the trucking company and driver did everything correctly, but a manufacturing defect, or shoddy maintenance are what really caused an accident. In these instances, it's not the trucking company or driver who are held to account, but a manufacturer or service company. Unfortunately, just because this can happen, trucking companies employ this defense, even when they know it's their driver who is at fault. But it would be unfair to trucking companies to say that just because these kinds of accidents are rare, and happen far less frequently than trucking companies claim they do, that they never occur.

I could continue to list exceptions and rare situations where someone other than a trucker driver or trucking company is liable for a truck accident, but I think you get the idea. It should also clear up why I find it so incredibly frustrating when people make snap judgments about liability or "who's getting sued" after reading a news article about a truck accident. When an 18-wheeler crashes it's not just a really big car accident, but a complex legal situation that requires a thorough investigation, not a simple newspaper report, to know exactly what should happen next.