Court Announces New Rule of Liability for Unsafe Truck Cargo

4
Aug

Court Announces New Rule of Liability for Unsafe Truck Cargo

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A Louisiana appellate court recently decided a case of first impression regarding the duties owed between a trucker and the shipper for the safe handling of cargo. The court ruled that the trucker bears the primary burden for safely handling the cargo, except for latent or concealed defects in the cargo.

The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal had to determine whether a shipper, a company for which an independent truck driver was hauling material, owed him any duty of care. In Stroder v. Hilcorp Energy Co., 2017-1086 (La. App. 3 Cir. 04/04/18); 2018 La. App. LEXIS 5967, the plaintiff was employed as a truck driver by MyVac, LLC. He reported to a land-based oil rig operated by Hilcorp Energy to transport drilling mud for offsite waste disposal. An employee of defendant Thomas Stevens & Associates served as an independent contractor “company man” supervising rig operations. Gulf Coast Brokerage, LLC acted as the solids control operator and was in charge of disposal of drilling fluids. The plaintiff reported to the site in an open-ended dump truck as ordered by the defendants.

Although the plaintiff only had three months experience driving commercial trucks, he believed that the mud was more of a liquid and should not be transported in an open-ended truck, because it could shift during transport. The plaintiff was so concerned that he offered to return to his employer’s yard and pick up a vacuum truck designed to haul liquid mud. Despite these concerns, the plaintiff was ensured numerous times that the load was safe to transport. Within a few miles of leaving the rig with a fully-loaded, open-ended truck and while negotiating an “S” curve in the road, the load shifted and the truck overturned, causing the plaintiff severe injuries.

The plaintiff sued Hilcorp, Gulf Coast Brokerage and Stevens and Associates. All three parties were dismissed on summary judgment. The plaintiff only appealed the judgment as to Stevens and Associates and Gulf Coast Brokerage. On appeal, the plaintiff claimed that the defendants owed him a duty of care as the shippers of the mud. The defendants countered that no duty was owed because the defective loading was obvious and apparent, which imposes responsibility on the plaintiff as the carrier under federal law, notably 49 C.F.R. § 392.9 (2018), which sets forth the duty of a trucking company to safely secure and transport cargo.

Unable to locate a Louisiana case deciding the subject matter of this lawsuit, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal stated it was a case of first impression. The court relied upon United States v. Savage Truck Line, Inc., 209 F.2d 442, 445 (4th Cir. 1953), cert denied, 347 U.S. 952 (1944), which held that “the primary duty as to the safe handling of property is … upon the carrier. When the shipper assumes the responsibility of loading, the general rule is that he becomes liable for defects which are latent and concealed and cannot be discerned by ordinary observation by the agents of the carrier; but if the improper loading is apparent, the carrier will be liable notwithstanding the negligence of the shipper.” The Louisiana Third Circuit adopted this rule from the Savage case, noting that the rule had been adopted by the majority of federal courts.

Although the Louisiana Third Circuit adopted the Savage rule to determine the duties of the respective parties, the court nevertheless reversed the trial court’s decision on familiar grounds, finding an issue of fact. In overturning the trial court’s granting of the Motions for Summary Judgment, the court stated that whether a defect in loading is obvious through ordinary observation or is concealed is a question of fact. “While Mr. Stroder was clearly aware the mud was in somewhat a fluid state, ‘this fact is not dispositive,’” the court stated.

The Third Circuit’s decision is significant for the trucking industry as it places the primary burden on the carrier, or the trucker, for the safe handling of cargo. However, this decision shows that the carrier is not always legally responsible if a truck’s cargo shifts and causes an accident. Instead, to determine liability for an incident, it will be important to investigate the actions of all parties involved in the shipment of the cargo and the methods used to load the cargo.

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