Articles Posted in Legal Developments

On June 24, 2009 the committee that controls the highway and trucking issues in the U.S. House of Representatives (the House Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit) will be reviewing the language contained in the Surface Transportation Act of 2009.

This is a prelude to having the bill passed by Congress later this year. At this point, there is no language included in the bill that would allow increases to truck size and weight. Unfortunately, it appears that Representative Michael Michaud is trying to amend the act to add language that was also included in H.R. 1799 which allowed drastic increased truck weight.

Larger trucks are the last thing we need. They don’t stop easily and tip over more frequently. Their already deficient break systems will fail if more weight is added. The heavier trucks will inflict more damage to roadways and bridges. Heavier trucks will require more fuel consumption and create higher pollution levels.

Call your member of Congress today and urge him or her to oppose any increase in the weight of tractor trailers on our highways. They are dangerous enough as it is – as the daily tragedies on the roads attest.

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I’ve reported previously on the Bush Administration’s continued efforts to cram down the nation’s throat a program allowing Mexican trucks full access to the interior of the U.S. Because the trucks and the drivers’ licensing aren’t close to U.S. standards, I have opposed this program. The full U.S. Congress approved a measure prohibiting a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) pilot program last year. But the FMCSA didn’t read the plain language of that law. Instead, FMCSA decided to bend over backwards to interpret it to authorize a one-year pilot program, and went right ahead with the very program Congress prohibited.

On July 31, 2008, the House Transportation Committee gave approval to a bill that would again prohibit funding for the program or allowing trucks into the interior pursuant to this program and would hold the pilot program to one year.

On August 4, 2008, the FMCSA announced that despite the prohibition, it will continue the program for two more years. In a brazen political move, FMCSA waited until the first day of Congress’s summer recess to announce the program. House Transportation Chair Jim Oberstar has vowed to kill the program this time.

A new law in South Carolina allows those on motorcycles, bicycles, and mopeds to proceed through a red light after two full minutes of waiting. Under the new provision, the drivers of these vehicles may treat the red light as a stop sign after 120 seconds. The traffic lights in many urban areas are controlled by weight sensors under the blacktop. The sensors allow traffic on a dominant street to continue with a green light until a vehicle is sensed on the lesser-travelled street. The law was a response to motorcyclists who reported that the weight sensors often don’t register the weight of their vehicles, prompting extremely long waits or the need to run the light. South Carolina joined six other states on May 27, 2008, when Governor Sanford signed the bill. Thanks to WIS for reporting.

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The U.S. House of Representatives voted November 14 against spending our tax money on the Mexican trucker program. This time, the vote was to accept a compromise version of the Department of Transportation funding bill that included the prohibition. This is the same program I have written about before that would allow Mexican truckers to travel virtually anywhere in the United States, without complying with the same safety regulations as U.S. truckers. This is not a country-of-origin issue. It’s a safety issue. The vote by the House (270 to147), showed strong bipartisan support for defeating the Mexican trucker program. The Senate is expected to vote this week on the conference report. Once passed, it goes to the President, who is threatening to veto the spending bill.

As I reported earlier, the Department of Transportation is pushing ahead with this program without regard for the majority in Congress or the driving public. The administration is trying to clear the way for unsafe Mexican trucks to have full access to all U.S. highways. That’s not a good thing.

Thanks to the Truck Safety Coalition for some of this information.

I recently read a new court decision that illustrates whose insurance company can be required to pay for an injured person’s damages in certain truck accidents.

In an important unpublished decision decided on January 10, the 4th Circuit United States Court of Appeals resolved a dispute between two insurance companies. Insurance coverage is an issue that very often has to be resolved by the courts. The case arose from a truck accident in April, 2003. The driver of the truck was an owner-operator. An owner-operator (sometimes called an independent contractor) is a truck driver who owns and operates his own tractor (and sometimes the trailer) and is leased to a motor carrier or a private carrier. The insurance company for the owner-operator and the insurance company for the trucking company (the carrier) were fighting over who would be responsible for paying the damages for injuries from the accident. (I know that you must be shocked to learn that the insurance companies wanted to collect premiums, but not pay claims).

In this case, the owner-operator leased his tractor to the carrier. The lease said that the carrier had exclusive control of, and complete responsibility for, the tractor when it was being used for the carrier. The owner-operator was permitted to drive the tractor to work. When the accident occurred, the owner-operator was driving the tractor to the carrier’s terminal to pick up his first load of the day.

After the wreck, the insurance company for the owner-operator’s personal vehicles filed a lawsuit. That company said that it didn’t have to pay for the damages because the tractor was being used for the carrier’s business when the accident happened. On the other hand, the carrier’s insurance company said it didn’t have to pay for the damages because the tractor was NOT being used for the carrier’s business when the accident happened.

The trial judge agreed with the carrier. It ruled that the owner-operator’s tractor was not being used for the carrier’s business when the wreck happened. So, the owner-operator’s insurance company filed an appeal.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the trial judge’s decision. It held that a D.O.T. regulation (49 C.F.R. § 376.12(c)(1)) mandates that the carrier has exclusive possession and control of the tractor throughout the term of the lease. Furthermore, the carrier’s own lease allowed the owner-operator to drive the truck to and from work, so the owner-operator was a “permissive user” when the accident happened. This means that insurance coverage for the driver’s negligence was provided under the trucking company’s policy.

Too many times, legal wrangling between insurance companies can unecessarily delay compensation to injured victims in truck accidents. Hopefully, this case can serve as an example to prevent some litigation between insurance companies who could otherwise seek to delay paying a legitimate claim by an injured person.

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