Six years after a crash that left a motorist paralyzed, a lengthy court battle has finally reached a conclusion.
Logistics giant C.H. Robinson recently settled a lawsuit stemming from the 2016 crash. The lawsuit – originally filed in federal court in 2017 – involved a dispute over broker responsibility.
According to reports, the incident occurred during icy conditions, after a tractor-trailer crossed the median and overturned on Interstate 80 in Nevada. Allen Miller, a passing motorist, was paralyzed as a result of injuries sustained in the crash.
Miller’s attorneys argued that C.H. Robinson, as a broker, had a duty to select a competent contractor and alleged that they knew – or should have known – about the carrier’s past safety violations. Among other arguments, attorneys for C.H. Robinson contended that two trucking businesses named as defendants in the case should be held responsible.
Citing a federal preemption of the Federal Aviation and Administration Authorization Act, a U.S. district court ruled in favor of the brokerage in November 2018. However, that ruling was later reversed by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, citing a safety exception to the federal law.
As a result, C.H. Robinson asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
The National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Retail Federation filed a brief with the court in support of the brokerage. Among their issues with the case, the brief stated that brokers “have little or no ability to meaningfully improve the overall safety of the roads by selecting one trucking company over another. Imposing tort liability on brokers for their selection of a carrier is therefore unnecessary, unproductive, and ultimately unfair.”
The U.S. attorney’s office also filed a legal brief disputing C.H. Robinson’s arguments, saying the appeals court correctly applied the safety exception.
Despite these arguments, the court denied the brokerage’s request to review the case in June – thereby upholding the lower court’s decision – and C.H. Robinson settled with Miller. The court closed the case in November.
While the case may be closed, the resulting legal battle does raise questions about how similar suits regarding broker and shipper liability could be handled in the future.
Bob Biesterfield, president and CEO of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based C.H. Robinson, expressed his concerns with the U.S. government’s brief in an op-ed published in the Star Tribune. The concerns included the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s process for reviewing the safety of a carrier.
“What is most troubling is that the solicitor general expressed a view that the U.S. government, through FMCSA, only provides a bare minimum level of review before deeming a trucking firm safe to operate – one that shippers and brokers of freight can no longer rely on,” he said.
Biesterfield contended that FMCSA – not individual shippers and brokers – should be tasked with setting “reasonable standards” when it comes to safety.
“FMCSA sets national standards for licensing motor carriers, freight brokers, freight forwarders and others in the industry. The agency mandates extensive safety regulations for how motor carriers, buses and transportation companies operate, including criteria required for certification and operating authority,” he said. “If FMCSA’s licensing of a motor carrier is not deemed a reasonable safety standard, then the standards set by FMCSA are rendered meaningless.” LL