Commercial freight companies often conduct business through complex relationships with contracted carriers. Traditionally, while companies are legally responsible for the negligent actions of their direct agents (i.e., their employees acting within the scope of their employment), they are generally not liable for the negligent conduct of independent contractors.
Respondeat superior, the legal theory that allows employer liability, is grounded in part on the concept that companies have control over the conduct of their workers or the right to control their employees’ conduct. Many trucking companies exercise a substantial level of control over contracted carriers. A new Illinois court decision has expanded the doctrine of employer liability to make freight companies legally responsible for independent contractors in certain situations.
Verdict Against C.H. Robinson Freight Company Upheld
In 2004, truck driver DeAn Henry was involved in an accident on Interstate 55 in Illinois that left two dead and another seriously injured. Henry admitted she failed to reduce her speed to avoid the accident and had made false entries in her logbook.
At the time of the crash, Henry had been working for Dragonfly Express, a carrier contacted by trucking giant C.H. Robinson Worldwide for the load. Henry was found to be negligent, and her contribution to the crash resulted in a jury award of over $23 million against herself, Dragonfly Express and C.H. Robinson.
C.H. Robinson appealed the verdict, arguing that it was not responsible for the actions of an independent contractor or its driver.
An Illinois appellate court reviewed the case, and found that C.H. Robinson forced independent contractors to comply with stringent operational stipulations. In fact, C.H. Robinson’s guidelines would have made it impossible for Henry to deliver her load on time without violating speed limits and hours of service regulations. This direct management of an independent contractor made Henry the functional equivalent of an employee.
In March, a panel of the Illinois Appellate Court, Third District upheld the verdict against C.H. Robinson.
Good News for Plaintiffs Injured In Accidents
Since the 2004 accident, Dragonfly Express has gone out of business, and it is unlikely Henry herself ever had sufficient financial resources to contribute to the $23 million judgment. The verdict against C.H. Robinson means that those injured and the families of those killed in truck accidents involving some independent contractors will be able to collect damages for their losses from the large trucking companies that utilize their services.
The decision of the Illinois Appellate Court could have an expansive impact. Potentially, more injured plaintiffs involved in automobile accidents involving trucks and tractor trailers will be able to secure the compensation they deserve, and freight companies will be unable to dodge liability by masking an agency relationship as an independent contractor arrangement.
If your life has been impacted by a trucking accident, contact an attorney today to ensure you recover appropriate damages from all responsible parties.