Florida Court Constrains Scope of Employer Relationship in Vicarious Liability Suit

photo_14071_20090908An issue that often arises when an employee harms another during the course of his job is whether the employer can be held vicariously liable for the employee’s act. Indeed, proving vicarious liability is often necessary for assuring that one can acquire full recovery for his injuries, since many employees are “judgment proof, ” meaning financially incapable of paying the opposing party’s judgment. Given the importance of vicarious liability, many plaintiffs attempt to stretch the meaning of employer. For instance, the Fifth District Court of Appeal recently addressed the scope of who could be deemed an “employer” under a local trucking law in its decision in Peninsula Logistics, Inc. v. Erb (PDF-embedded link).

This Erb litigation was born from a collision between a vehicle owned by the plaintiffs and a semi-truck owned by O & L Transport. At the time of the accident, the driver of the truck was transporting cargo for Peninsula in a trailer owned by a different entity. Following the collision, the plaintiffs brought suit against several defendants, including Peninsula. Although the driver was not directly employed by Peninsula, the plaintiffs argued that Peninsula could nonetheless be held liable because Peninsula fell within the definition of an employer under a pertinent trucking regulation. Eventually, the case went to trial, which resulted in a favorable verdict for the plaintiffs. Peninsula brought an appeal, arguing that it could not be considered an employer as a matter of law, and therefore the trial court erred in not granting its motion for a directed verdict.

The Fifth District agreed with Peninsula and reversed the trial court’s denial of the motion for directed verdict. First, Section 316.302(1)(b) of the Florida Statutes provides that all owners or drivers of commercial motor vehicles that are engaged in intrastate commerce are subject to the rules and regulations contained in pertinent federal regulations on interstate trucking. One regulation defines an employer as “any person engaged in a business . . . who owns or leases a commercial motor vehicle . . ., or assigns employees to operate it. . . .” and defines “employee” to include independent contractors. 49 C.F.R. § 390.5. However, the Fifth District noted that Peninsula neither owned nor leased the vehicle at issue and furthermore did not assign the driver to operate it, since it did not have the legal right to assign operation of the vehicle. Accordingly, it could not be deemed an employer subject to the federal regulations. Instead, the exclusive employer was O & L Transport. Although one Texas court had reached a different conclusion with respect to the scope of the word “assign,” the Fifth District found that the Texas court erred in focusing on the assignment of the task rather than the assignment of the operation of the vehicle. The Fifth District reasoned that the latter form of assignment is the type with which the regulations are concerned.

Although other parties remain liable for the plaintiffs’ injuries, Peninsula may have been the defendant most capable of satisfying its judgment. Even though proving liability is of the ultimate importance, consideration such as assuring one’s recovery also play into the calculus of successful litigation strategy. Indeed, if you’ve been harmed as a result of possible negligence, you should make sure you assert all possible claims using any reasonable theory of liability, for having multiple defendants can help assure greater ease in acquiring full recovery. The assistance of knowledgeable counsel goes a long way in this effort. The South Florida truck accident attorneys at Frankl and Kominsky are well versed in both state negligence law and are ready to help you with a possible case. Feel free to contact us if you are interested in a free case consultation to discuss the legal options you may have.

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