When is an independent owner-operator of a tractor-trailer considered to be “under dispatch?” Louisiana courts have often grappled with the question of whether a motor carrier is liable for the actions of an independent owner-operator when it is unclear if the owner-operator is “under dispatch.” Here, we will look at some of the principles that guide this determination, as well as some of the issues pertaining to liability.
The Law Regarding the Determination of Motor Carrier Liability
The question of whether a driver is or is not under dispatch is important for the determination of motor carrier liability. Under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, 49 C.F.R., liability attaches to motor carriers when there is a valid lease between the carrier and the driver, whether an employee or an independent operator. Ste. Marie v. Midwest Freightways, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 82129, at *10 (W.D. La. 11/1/07); Jackson v. Wise, 249 So. 3d 845, 856 (La. App. 1 Cir. 4/13/18). That lease must provide that the “authorized carrier lessee shall have exclusive possession, control, and use of the equipment” during the lease. 49 C.F.R. § 376.12(c)(1). The lease must also provide that the “authorized carrier lessee shall assume complete responsibility for the operation of the equipment” during the lease. Id.
There is a presumption that a motor carrier is liable for the actions of an independent owner-operator when an innocent third party is injured by the motor carrier’s driver. Guidry v. USAgencies Cas. Ins. Co., 213 So. 3d 406, 419 (La. App. 1 Cir. 2/16/17). However, this presumption can be rebutted by showing that the driver was not “acting in furtherance” of the motor carrier. Jackson v. Wise, 249 So. 3d 845, 856 (La. App. 1 Cir. 4/13/18). If the presumption is successfully rebutted, then the carrier is not vicariously liable for the actions of the driver. Id.
Carrier Liability if a Driver IS Under Dispatch
Drivers are “under dispatch” or “acting in the business of the carrier” when the vehicle is “being used to further the commercial interests of the lessee.” Williams v. Great Am. Ins. Co., 240 F. Supp. 3d 523, 532 (E.D. La. 3/18/17). Courts have held that drivers who are “on standby” are under dispatch. For example, some courts have held that driving to or from a “place to sleep or rest” can be acting in furtherance of the business of another if the driver anticipates deliveries on the following day; i.e., the driver is “on standby.” Williams, 240 F. Supp. 3d at 532.
The court in Richardson v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 189672 (E.D. La. 11/16/17), found the motor carrier liable for the actions of its driver. The driver had a one-year lease with the motor carrier to make deliveries with his truck. The driver, while driving the leased truck, got in an accident while stopping to get a tire on the truck replaced. The court held that the driver was “furthering the commercial interests” of the motor carrier by “ensuring that his truck was maintained and available for the next load.” Thus, the court concluded that the driver was acting “in the business” of the carrier, and therefore the carrier was found to be liable.
Carrier Liability if a Driver is NOT Under Dispatch
Courts have also distinguished situations where a driver is not under dispatch. Some of these situations include, but are not limited to, the driver: not being paid for their mileage; not being under “pre-dispatch” for a delivery; and driving home (or elsewhere) for personal reasons, as opposed to work-related reasons. Richardson v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 189672, at *9 (E.D. La. 11/16/17). For example, if the driver has completed all deliveries and is not expecting future deliveries (i.e., not on standby), then that driver’s trip home is less likely to be considered as doing the business of the carrier. Bell v. L & B Transp. LLC, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9919, at *13 (M.D. La. 1/19/21).
The court in Jurey v. Kemp, 77 So. 3d 83 (La. App. 1 Cir. 9/20/11), held that the motor carrier was not vicariously liable for the actions of the driver. The driver, an independent contractor who leased his truck to the motor carrier, got in an accident on the way to complete a favor for a shop owner, who was not connected to the motor carrier. At the time of the accident, the driver was “off duty,” was not under the carrier’s control, was not on standby for any deliveries, was free to go where he pleased, and was not paid for/did not seek reimbursement for the trip. After considering all of the circumstances, the court found that the driver was not acting in the business of the motor carrier. Therefore, the court held that the insurance policy did not provide coverage for the accident, and the motor carrier was not vicariously liable for the accident.
The court in Jackson v. Wise, 249 So. 3d 845 (La. App. 1 Cir. 4/13/18), also held that the motor carrier was not vicariously liable for the accident. The driver in this case owned an 18-wheeler that he leased with the carrier for five years. Under the lease, the driver could not use the truck “for any parades.” However, during the lease, the driver used the truck to pull a float in a parade, and ended up running over one of the riders, causing her severe injuries. The court ruled that the motor carrier overcame the presumption of liability because the driver acted in direct conflict with the terms of the lease, and therefore the motor carrier was not vicariously liable.
While there is still no steadfast rule that determines when a driver is considered to be “under dispatch,” these cases can provide some guidance for courts who are faced with the issue of motor carrier liability. Generally, if a driver is anticipating a future delivery, is getting paid for the trip, or is engaging in an activity that will commercially benefit the motor carrier, then that driver is likely to be considered under dispatch. However, if the driver is using the truck for personal reasons or is “off the clock” and not expecting more deliveries, then the driver is not likely under dispatch. This distinction is important because it is a major factor in determining motor carrier liability.