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Overview: In an opinion issued in early February 2020, the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s granting of partial summary judgment in favor of two defendants – the broker who assigned hauling jobs and its related entity which supplied the tractor-trailer to the driver.  In this case, the district court concluded that the driver was an independent contractor and the plaintiffs could not hold the defendant-broker and its related entity liable when the driver rear-ended plaintiffs’ car while driving a tractor-trailer through Illinois.

Background: The driver of the tractor-trailer, while traveling to a location in Indiana to pick up cargo, collided with plaintiffs in a car collision causing serious personal injuries.  Citing theories of respondeat superior and vicarious liability, the plaintiffs sued the driver, the broker and its related trucking company, alleging the parties negligently collided with their car.  The defendant broker and its related trucking company moved for summary judgment, claiming that the driver was not its agent. The defendants offered evidence showing that they did not control how the driver performed his work and furnished an agreement between defendant-broker and driver indicating that he was an independent contractor.  The agreement stipulated that the driver retained "full control" over details of delivery, including providing and maintaining tractor, selecting and paying driver, and selecting route, number of hours to drive per day, and location to refuel. Plaintiff tried to counter defendants’ control argument by stating that driver had to call defendant-broker with daily status updates, that the driver was hauling exclusively for the defendant-broker at the time of the accident, as well as other arguments.  However, court ruled that these facts did not establish degree of control over driver necessary to indicate agency relationship. Moreover, fact that driver was hauling exclusively for defendant-broker was irrelevant, where broker did not require such exclusivity.

Take Away(s): We find this outcome to be a positive result to limit liability of those involved in trucking litigation. We feel this is another sign to plaintiff’s counsel that federal courts will not continue to allow all of those entities involved in a potential action to be sued. It should be noted that this is another example of what the court looks for regarding scope of employment to determine the difference between an independent contractor and an employee as we start to move into an era where this is a hotly contested subject. 

If you have questions about how this ruling may affect your transportation company, please contact Johnson & Bell Attorney, Julie J. Busch or Shareholder, Gregory D. Conforti.

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