Motor Carriers Are Liable For Injuries to Drivers of Leased Vehicles Who Are Classified As Independent Contractors

From JDSupra, Karen L. Moore of Low, Ball & Lynch writes a recent decision that held that someone who hires an independent contractor may be liable for the negligence of the independent contractor.  The general rule is that someone is not liable for the acts of an independent contractor.  The exception to this rule occurs when there is a duty to others that cannot be delegated to the independent contractor.  A party cannot avoid responsibility for a duty simply because the party delegated a duty to an independent contractor. Karen writes:

In Vargas, California’s Second Appellate District held that the Privette doctrine does not shield a motor carrier operating under a federal franchise from liability for tort injuries to employees of its independent contractors.FMI, Inc. (“FMI”) is a federally licensed motor carrier.  FMI transports goods by hiring contractors called “owner/operators” who lease their tractors and drivers to FMI.  In this case, FMI selected Eves Express Inc. and its drivers, Jose Vargas (“Vargas”) and Luis Villalobos (“Villalobos”), to transport goods from California to New Jersey.  At the start of the trip, Villalobos drove while Vargas slept in a berth.  A few hours into the trip Villalobos fell asleep and lost control of the tractor-trailer.  The tractor-trailer rolled over, injuring Vargas.Vargas filed a complaint alleging negligence against FMI (the motor carrier and trailer owner), Eves Express, Inc. (“Eves”) (the tractor owner), Eswin Suchite (Eves’ principal) and Villalobos.  FMI and Eves filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that Vargas was an independent contractor and that neither FMI nor Eves owed Vargas a duty to provide a safe workplace.  Rather, FMI and Eves contended that they “implicitly delegated” all workplace safety responsibilities and tort liability to Vargas citing the Privette line of cases….

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s ruling, reasoning that there were exceptions to the common law rule of hirer non-liability for negligent acts of independent contractors. The non-delegable duties doctrine “prevents a party that owes a duty to others from evading responsibility by claiming to have delegated that duty to an independent contractor hired to do the necessary work.” A non-delegable duty can be created by statute, regulation or under a franchise granted by a public authority. A person or entity lawfully operating under a franchise granted by public authority that involves an unreasonable risk of harm to others is subject to non-delegable liability for physical harm caused by the negligence of an independent contractor….”

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