Truck driver Rene Flores drove long past the hours allowed by law, then he doctored his logbooks to cover it us. And his employers knew.
The truck driver told his story to a journalist at USA Today, claiming he was fired when he complained. Of course, his employer tells a different story, putting the blame back on the driver.
I have seen this type of situation in my law practice many times. Under federal and Texas laws, both driver and employer are liable for violations of hours of service laws and for injuries caused by the inevitable wreck.
That is why I conduct a thorough investigation into the driver’s conduct and the employer’s policies and practices. Does the company set unrealistic delivery schedules? Or employ an unfair pay scheme that encourages its drivers to work dangerously long hours? Does the employer know about the hours of service violations? Is the trucker’s job threatened if he rocks the boat? In a shocking number of cases, the answers to all these questions is “yes.”
In the past, the employment relationship imputed liability on trucking companies for their drivers’ negligent actions. However, these days, trucking companies rely more and more on independent contractors. This trend allows employers to wipe their hands of liability in some cases.
First, there are fewer legal safeguards for independent workers, meaning workers have insufficient recourse to protect themselves against poor working conditions. This fact doesn’t relieve the driver of responsibility — there is never a good excuse for putting other lives at risk — but it does highlight an important risk factor. Although trucking companies are responsible for tracking their drivers’ hours, it is easier for them to claim ignorance when the driver is not an employee.
The lease-to-own contract is another trend shaping the trucking industry. Drivers are attracted to the prospect of owning their own vehicle, but may become mired in debt to the company. The company may claim it did not demand the trucker work X number of hours, but the driver might never be able to pay off the enormous debt unless he does so. And the company knows this.
Trucker Rene Flores claims this is what happened to him. He felt he had no choice but to put in more hours to break even. If he complained, he was given worse routes that required even longer hours. Eventually, he was fired for exposing the practice and lost the truck he had worked so hard to buy. This would certainly be a cautionary tale to fellow truckers.
Nobody forced the Wal-Mart trucker to embark on a long-haul delivery after commuting 800 miles from home to work. But, what did the Wal-Mart supervisors honestly think was going to happen when they scheduled Kevin Roper, a driver who lived so far away from the start point? The sleep-deprived Wal-Mart driver nodded off at the wheel and severely injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed his dear friend Jimmy Mack in a horrific crash.
The nation’s largest retailer could easily have scheduled a driver that lived near the Delaware distribution location and given Roper a route near his Georgia home. This decision was not just a lack of commonsense; it is another example of a negligent company policy.
Fatigued driver accidents remain very common in Texas. I always look into sleep history, drive time and logbook entries in my case investigations. And I typically name the employer in my lawsuits. Providing better working conditions is a crucial factor in creating safer roadways. Tractor-trailer drivers need enough sleep, and companies are responsible for creating policies that ensure healthy, well-rested drivers are behind the wheel.