Carriers not fully liable for repairs by third parties, Florida court rules
December 5, 2019
A Florida appeals court has ruled that a motor carrier is not liable to ensure a trailer is properly maintained after a third party has made appropriate repairs. The decision upholds a lower court’s decision to reduce the half-million-dollar jury verdict by more than 75%.
On Thursday, Dec. 4, Florida’s First District Court of Appeals affirmed a circuit court’s decision to award Tuong Vi Le more than $115,000 after a detached tire from a tractor-trailer owned by Colonial Freight Systems struck a vehicle in which she was a passenger.
Originally, the jury verdict awarded the plaintiff more than $500,000 in damages to be paid entirely by Colonial Freight. However, the circuit court judge reduced that amount to a little more than $115,000. The lower court ruled that the carrier is not fully liable for damages for which a jury determined was only 23% responsible.
Trailer tire strikes vehicle
The case stems from an incident that occurred in June 2010. A tire from one of Colonial Freight’s trailers detached. The tire struck a vehicle in which Le was a passenger on Interstate 75 in Columbia County, Fla.
Earlier that May, trailer brakes on that same truck caught fire. Two passenger-side rear trailer wheels were damaged. The trailer was towed to a TravelCenters of America. TA had provided repair and maintenance service for the carrier since 1998, according to the appeals brief.
Two weeks later, a Colonial Freight employee conducted a safety inspection on the trailer. He found no issues with the trailer. Six days after the inspections, the trailer returned to duty on Interstate 75. Damaged bearings caused two right rear trailer tires to dismount.
Le, who was three months pregnant at the time, was travelling as a passenger in a minivan behind the trailer. She was traveling from Georgia to West Palm Beach with her friend Lily Nguyen.
When the tire struck the minivan, causing the airbags to deploy, Nguyen pulled over to the side of the road.
Le could not get an MRI or X-ray because of her pregnancy. However, she was assured her unborn child was fine. Eventually, she discovered she suffered a spinal injury. Le would later undergo surgery to help relieve some of the constant pain.
Carrier or shop responsible for substandard repairs?
In an amended complaint filed in February 2012, Le accused Colonial Freight and TA of negligence.
The complaint alleges that TA negligently installed the wheels on the trailer before the incident. However, Le dropped all defendants from the lawsuit except Colonial Freight, shifting all the blame to the carrier.
Moving for summary judgment, Le acknowledged that TA did in fact perform repairs on the trailer in May 2010. Rather than hold TA liable, Le’s attorneys suggest that Colonial Freight “owed her a nondelegable duty to inspect, maintain, repair and operate trailer #5427 in a safe condition under the common law and various trucking regulations.”
In other words, Colonial Freight should have known that TA performed insufficient repairs on the trailer.
Ray Floyd, Colonial Freight’s vice president of maintenance, testified that the company pays TA about $300,000 a year to maintain and repair the approximately 500 trailers the carrier owns. Colonial Freight’s employees generally do not review TA invoices, putting confidence in its work.
Only after the trailer tire struck the car did Floyd go back and review the May 2010 repairs.
“There was not anything to draw attention to this particular trailer because after the repair at TA, you see, I thought everything was good.” Floyd testified. “The way the invoice reads, it looks like they did not do as much as they could have done.”
Scott Simmons, Colonial Freight’s safety director in 2010, testified that “if the bearings within the hub had been properly inspected and replaced, this incident wouldn’t have happened,” the appeals court opinion states. Simmons pointed out that anyone doing a proper safety inspection could not have discovered the issue.
“In order to inspect the parts that we’re talking about here, they are inside of a hub,” Simmons testified. “And the only way to inspect them is to completely take the hub apart, which we would never ask of our drivers on the road. They’re not qualified or trained to do that type of work.”
During trial, Le’s attorneys tried to convince a jury that the carrier held the burden of ensuring the trailer was properly repaired by way of “nondelegable duty.”
Black’s Law Dictionary explains nondelegable duty in the following example: “The safety of the employees is the responsibility of the employer even though a third party was hired to monitor compliance with safety standards.” In this case, Colonial Freight is responsible for the shoddy repairs that caused a crash, not TA or anyone else.
Jury finds carriers partially responsible
The jury was not completely convinced.
Colonial Freight was found to be 23% at fault for the crash. However, TA was found 77% responsible. Damages of $521,984.39 were awarded to Le. The trial court initially determined post-trial that the carrier was responsible for the actions committed by TA. A final judgment of $502,352.70 was entered.
However, Colonial Freight appealed to amend the final judgement.
“The trial court also recognized that the regulations allow motor carriers like (Colonial Freight) to utilize qualified mechanics and inspectors, that nothing requires a carrier to disassemble a wheel or hub during an inspection to verify that a qualified mechanic performed appropriate repairs, and that it was apparent that a repair facility not only owes a duty to the one who paid for the repairs but also to third parties who might be endangered by negligent repairs,” the appellate decision states.
Accordingly, the trial court entered a second amended final judgment of $115,541.12. That is exactly 23% of the first amended judgment.
In her appeal, Le invoked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations to support her claim. She referred to the following parts of section 396.17, “Periodic inspection:”
- Motor carriers must inspect or cause to be inspected all motor vehicles subject to their control.
- A motor carrier or intermodal equipment provider responsible for the inspection may choose to have a commercial garage, fleet leasing company, truck stop, or other similar commercial business perform the inspection as its agent.
- It is the responsibility of the motor carrier or intermodal equipment provider to ensure that all parts and accessories on commercial motor vehicles intended for use in interstate commerce for which they are responsible are maintained at, or promptly repaired to, the minimum standards.
“We read nothing in section 396.17 to support the contention that (Colonial Freight) or any other motor carrier who seeks prompt repair work should then be held liable for any negligence on the part of an outside repair facility,” the appellate court ruled.
The three-judge appellate panel unanimously upheld the circuit court’s second amended final judgment.