As a southern Illinois tractor-trailer accident attorney, I was interested to read an Illinois appeals court decision affirming that a trucking company can be found vicariously liable for injuries caused by the truck driver for its contractor. In Sperl et al. v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., et al., C.H. Robinson (CHR) was not the trucking company; it is a freight broker that finds trucking companies for customers that need shipping services. CHR had contracted with trucking company Toad L. Dragonfly Express for delivery of a load of potatoes. The driver working for Dragonfly, DeAn Henry, caused a multi-vehicle accident in 2004 near Plainfield, Ill. The crash killed Joseph Sperl and Thomas Sanders, and caused serious injuries to William Taluc. All three families sued Henry, Dragonfly and CHR in Illinois court. CHR admitted no liability, but the jury and the Third District Court of Appeal both disagreed.
Henry owned her truck and leased her trailer from Dragonfly, for whom she worked. However, she was working directly for CHR when she failed to notice stopped traffic ahead on Interstate 55 and caused the accident. Henry and Dragonfly admitted liability, but CHR did not. At trial, Henry testified that she was working for CHR and in frequent contact, per its instructions; she also testified that CHR’s schedule left her without enough time to make the delivery while also following federal hours of service regulations. A dispatcher for CHR agreed with this at trial. After the judge denied CHR’s motion for a directed verdict on agency, the jury found that Henry was an agent of CHR, making CHR vicariously liable, and awarded a total of $23.775 million between the three families. After losing a post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial, CHR appealed.
On appeal, CHR argued that the evidence did not show an agency relationship between itself and Henry, because Henry was an independent contractor who CHR had no right to control. An agency, the Third District noted, is a consensual relationship in which the principal controls the agent’s actions and the agent can affect the principal’s legal relations. Nonetheless, it said, the labels given by the parties to a relationship are not dispositive of the issue; courts should look at multiple factors, most importantly the right to control work performance. Under that test, the Third District said, the jury’s decision was not against the evidence. Henry’s actions were closely controlled by her contract with CHR, and compliance was ensured with fines. Henry’s work as a trucker is closely related to CHR’s. And Dragonfly was not directly involved in the negotiations or work. It dismissed two previous federal cases finding CHR not liable, saying they were different because CHR owned the product and more closely directed Henry’s actions in this case. Thus, it could not find that the jury’s decision was against the evidence, and upheld the verdict.
This decision could be helpful to injured people and Missouri semi truck accident lawyers like me, because it opens another path to liability. As the cases CHR cited show, other federal courts have decided against holding it financially responsible for accidents involving its contractors. This case was decided differently, in a way that I hope will help trucking accident attorneys and their clients determine whether they should include transportation brokers like CHR in their claims. As a rule, it’s better for plaintiffs to include more parties, because more parties increases the chance of a payout that helps them get the medical care they need and make ends meet while they recover. Commercial truck accidents often leave victims dead or permanently disabled, so there’s a real financial concern. However, as a St. Louis 18-wheeler accident attorney, I know clients do not enjoy the expense and heartache of suing an inappropriate defendant.
Carey, Danis & Lowe focuses its practice on serious semi truck crashes, so we have the expertise to handle financially and medically complex cases. If you’d like to discuss your case and your legal options, send us a message online or call us today at 1-877-678-3400.
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