Freight Brokers Granted Some Limitations to Plaintiffs’ Vicarious Liability and Negligence Theories

Katherine M. Flett

By Katherine M. Flett



Since the Sperl v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. decision in 2011, freight brokers have been battling vicarious liability claims for the actions of motor carriers and their truck drivers.

In Sperl, truck driver DeAn Henry was involved in a multi-vehicle collision, resulting in several deaths. Henry owned the tractor she was driving and leased it to Dragonfly, a motor carrier. When the collision occurred, she was delivering a load for CHR, a freight broker. Dragonfly and CHR entered into a contract carrier agreement, which described the relationship between the parties as follows:

“The parties understand and agree that the relationship of [Dragonfly] to [CHR] hereunder is solely that of an independent contract and that [Dragonfly] shall and does, employ, retain or lease on its own behalf all persons operating motor vehicles transporting commodities under this Contract.”

Nonetheless, Dragonfly gave Henry permission to use its carrier authority to book and deliver loads on her own. If Henry booked a load, she would be permitted to keep all the profit. If Dragonfly dispatched Henry, Dragonfly would be entitled to five percent. Suit was filed against CHR, among other defendants, for wrongful deaths and personal injuries.

trucking

trucking on scenic highway, sunset and clouds

At trial, Henry testified that Dragonfly did not dispatch her for the load she was transporting for CHR when the collision occurred, but instead Henry called CHR and requested the load herself.  Evidence revealed that CHR required Henry to have a refrigerated trailer of a specified length and CHR dictated special instructions concerning the load, including requirements that she pick up the load at a specified time, make daily check calls, and stay in constant communication with the CHR dispatchers. If Henry did not comply with the special instructions, she was subject to CHR’s system of fines.

At the close of trial, CHR moved for a directed verdict as to the agency issue, which was denied. The jury concluded that CHR was vicariously liable based on agency and entered judgment in favor of the plaintiffs in the amount of $23.8 million. The trial court denied CHR’s motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and motion for new trial. Continue reading »