On May 11, 2007, a loaded tractor trailer owned and driven by Mike Surlina crashed into an automobile occupied by the Zegel family resulting in severe and permanent injuries to all three occupants. At the time of the crash, Mr. Surlina’s tractor trailer bore the logo and DOT numbers of PN Express, an Illinois based motor common carrier. PN Express claimed that Mr. Surlina had been hired after the date of the accident and was an independent contactor at the time the collision occurred. PN Express was unable, however, to produce Mr. Surlina’s driver file to verify his hiring date.
The Court of Appeals ruled that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that there was an oral lease agreement between PN Express and Mr. Surlina at the time of the accident, primarily based on Mr. Surlina’s admission that such a lease was in effect and on testimony that Mr. Surlina’s truck carried the PN Express logo. Additionally, Mr. Surlina and PN Express were in constant telephone contact with each other during the trip on which the accident occurred. The fact that the driver file could not be produced lead to an appropriate charge, according to the Court, of spoliation of evidence meaning that the absence of the file was to be construed by the jury against PN Express.
The Court also found that the jury was appropriately instructed on the “doctrine of statutory employment” and that Federal Motor Carrier Regulations required PN Express, as a motor carrier utilizing leased or rented equipment such as the tractor trailer involved in the accident, to “have exclusive possession, control, and use of the equipment for the duration of the lease.” According to the Court, “the lease shall further provide that the authorized carrier lessee shall assume complete responsibility for the operation of the equipment for the duration of the lease.” Under this regulatory scheme, “the motor carrier is fully responsible to the public for the operation of its leased vehicles, regardless of whether the vehicles are used in the scope of the carrier business.” The doctrine creates strict vicarious liability upon the lessee motor carrier.
Finally, at trial PN Express sought to let the jury allow apportionment of the verdict against a non-party, Patterson Freight Company (“Patterson”), which was the broker for the load in question. PN Express argued that under O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33, (the apportionment statute) the jury should have been allowed to consider that Patterson directed and controlled Mr. Surlina or negligently supervised him. The Court declined to allow apportionment as to Patterson on the basis that PN Express’ liability was vicarious or derivative. In other words, PN Express was liable for Mr. Surlina’s and Patterson’s negligence for the reasons discussed above. Although there was no Georgia case law on this issue (there is now) other states have determined that comparative false statutes do not apply where the defendant’s liability is derivative. Since PN Express’ liability for the accident was purely vicarious in nature for the acts of Mr. Surlina himself, rather than joint and several, the comparative false statute would not apply. Quite frankly, this part of the opinion was confusing and not explained particularly well. While PN Express was certainly found liable for the negligence of Mr. Surlina that should not necessarily mean that it is also vicariously liable for the negligence of Patterson.
This opinion is very friendly for the plaintiffs in trucking cases and there are many issues in it that may find their way to the Georgia Supreme Court. Please let me know if you would like a copy of this opinion.