A Win for Our Client in a Wrongful Death Case Involving a Franchisor/Franchisee Relationship

Pilot is engaged in the air freight forwarding business and has established a nationwide system of franchisees. Kerry Rockford (“Rockford”) is a franchisee of Pilot in the Atlanta area. On July 13, 2007, a pizza oven being delivered to a Papa John’s restaurant in Woodstock, Georgia fell on Richard Hall while being unloaded from a truck, causing Mr. Hall’s death. Rockford had the contract to deliver the ovens in Georgia but had hired an independent contractor, T.J. Hodges Freight Services (“Hodges”), for the job.

The plaintiff, the widow of Mr. Hall, contended that Pilot was liable for the actions of Rockford and Hodges under Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and Georgia law regarding franchisor/franchisee relationships. Judge Dempsey ruled that Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations were inapplicable because the regulations exclude incidents occurring during the unloading of cargo. The Judge and Court of Appeals also ruled that Pilot was not vicariously liable for the actions of Rockford or Hodges because Pilot had not exercised sufficient control over its franchisee to create an agency relationship.

The Plaintiff argued that the fact that Pilot’s name and logo were displayed and used in Rockford’s office and on employee uniforms created the perception with customers that they were dealing with Pilot and a reasonable reliance on that fact. According to Judge Dempsey, however, this was insufficient evidence that Pilot was holding Rockford or Hodges out as its agent(s). Even if Hodges was wearing a Pilot uniform while delivering the ovens, “use of the franchisor’s name is inherent in any franchise agreement and is insufficient to raise a question of fact with respect to liability where the evidence demonstrates that the franchisor and franchisee are distinct and independent entities and that no agency exists.” Also, there was no evidence that Richard Hall relied on an agency relationship and would have refused to work if he was aware that Pilot was not the carrier designated to deliver the ovens.

Please let me know if you would like a copy of Judge Dempsey’s opinion. The Court of Appeals adopted his opinion and did not issue its own published opinion.


About the Author

Michael Rust graduated from Emory University in 1980 and Emory University School of Law in 1983 where he was Notes and Comments editor of the Emory Law Journal (Law Review). Since that time, he has maintained an active trial practice in the state of Georgia both in State and Federal Courts. Mr. Rust teaches litigation as part of Emory University School of Law’s annual Trial Practice Program. He has received AV rating from Martindale Hubble, the highest rating afforded to lawyers by their peers.