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Who’s responsible for ensuring a trucker meets DOT safety qualification standards?

Written by Steve Gursten Posted December 10th, 2014

Today’s legal tip: The trucking company is always responsible


Today, I want to discuss a a common defense attorney tactic I often see in truck accident litigation. The tactic is to have the trucking company that hired an unsafe driver, or allowed a dangerous trucker to operate an 18-wheeler when the driver had no business being behind the wheel, hide behind a DOT examination and certificate.

If truckers suffer from medical conditions, such as significant sleep disorders, or use prescription drugs that can have dangerous side effects, they are not supposed to get behind the wheel of a semi-truck – period. This is for everyone’s safety.

However, it isn’t unusual to have unsafe truckers slip through DOT screens and wind up operating a big-rig tractor trailer on our highways. For years, many truckers who knew they should not drive, would all go to the same medical examiner. You can also look at the ads in the back of many industry magazines and see all sorts of products that truckers can take to pass various drug screens.

When a medical emergency occurs, or when a truck driver who suffers from a disorder such as sleep apnea is involved in a fatigue-related deadly crash, the first argument out of the trucking company’s mouth is “Well, he passed the DOT exam – how could we have known!?” That’s followed, of course, by the lawyers saying they’re clearly not responsible for this unforeseeable “Act of God.”

This argument should never get the trucking company off of the hook.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite, according to 49 CFR § 391.11(a).

The rule makes it explicitly clear that “a motor carrier shall not require or permit a person to drive a commercial motor vehicle unless that person is qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle.”

In other words, the motor carrier bears the legal burden to ensure the truck driver it puts on the road is safe and qualified to operate a commercial motor vehicle.

There is case law on point that makes this even more clear.  In the case, Javela v. Concrete Corp., the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals interpreted § 391.11(a). In finding the trucking company ultimately was responsible for making sure a truck driver was qualified to operate an 18-wheeler, the court noted:

“DOT regulations unambiguously place the burden on an employer to ensure that an employee meets all qualification standards. 49 CFR § 391.11(a). In fact, the regulations provide that a motor carrier “shall not require or permit a person to drive a commercial motor vehicle” unless the person is qualified to drive one.

So, next time a trucking company hires lawyers who try to deflect responsibility and hide behind the shield of a DOT certification, point to § 391.11(a) and the Jarvela case.

When it comes to making sure truckers are properly qualified, the buck stops with the company.  If they do not, there is a violation in their duty to supervise and monitor their drivers.

Related information:

Crashes caused by medical emergencies are truly preventable


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About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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