Negligent Hiring, Retention And Entrustment In Truck Accident Cases
John Houghton’s law practice has focused on holding truckers and their employers accountable for the devastation of trucking accidents. He has litigated tractor-trailer collision cases and other truck accidents across Georgia and throughout the United States. John can address how hiring and training practices endanger the public by putting unsafe or unqualified drivers in control of a multi-ton rig.
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By John A. Houghton
The objective of this article is to give an overview of negligent hiring, retention and entrustment law in Georgia and the evidence-gathering process required to support such claims. In the context of trucking cases, the overworked and underpaid over-the-road driver can often be a source of sympathy for the defense. From the plaintiff attorney’s perspective, it is important to not merely fixate on the driver’s shortcomings and conduct in causing a tractor-trailer crash. The practitioner should focus a considerable amount of attention on the motor carrier’s conduct in potentially ignoring all of the warning signs of an unsafe driver.
Negligent hiring and retention claims place the crosshairs directly on the motor carrier as the party responsible for the collision. The rationale is that the motor carrier’s failure to ensure it was putting a safe driver on the roadway is a proximate cause of these collisions. There are a number of simple, inexpensive ways to investigate whether the company negligently hired and/or retained an unsafe driver who injured your client. The development of these claims is a very fact-intensive process, but one that will ultimately enhance the value of your trucking case.
I. Negligent Hiring And Retention Claims
Negligent hiring and retention claims only require proof that the company knew or should have known.
The thrust of any negligent hiring or retention claim is that a motor carrier did one of the following:
a) Knowingly violated the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) or its own internal policies and procedures in hiring, retaining and screening an unsafe driver
b) Consciously disregarded the consequences of its actions in dispatching a driver with a significant record of safety violations, citations and/or wrecks
Negligent hiring and retention claims require the plaintiff “to show the employer knew or should have known of the employee’s dangerous propensities.” See Smith v. Tommy Roberts Trucking Co., 209 Ga. App. 826, 829 (1993) citing Southern Bell Tel. etc. Co. v. Sharara, 167 Ga. App. 665, 307 S.E.2d 129 (1983). See also O.C.G.A. § 34-7-20.
Even where a defendant is potentially entitled to summary judgment on a claim for negligent entrustment because of the plaintiff’s failure to show the defendant’s actual knowledge of the driver’s incompetency, the negligent hiring/retention claim can survive. This is because the standard of care in negligent hiring/retention cases is whether the defendant knew or in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the driver’s incompetency. Smith v. Tommy Roberts Trucking Co. 209 Ga. App. at 829. [Emphasis supplied]
The duty on the motor carrier to inspect the driver’s history is imposed by the FMCSR. The regulated motor carrier is required to make efforts to request personnel information from the previous regulated employers/motor carriers listed on the new driver’s application for the preceding three years. See 49 CFR § 391.23(a)(2). Additionally, the regulations require the motor carrier to obtain a motor vehicle record of the new applicant from every state they held a permit for the previous three years. See 49 CFR § 391.23(a)(1). Evidence that the motor carrier failed to follow the regulations in screening a new driver, or outright intentionally ignored a potentially unsafe driving history, creates a sufficient factual issue to get the negligent hiring claims to a jury. See Smith at 828-829.
The FMCSR also require motor carriers to annually inspect the driver’s motor vehicle record. See 49 CFR § 391.25. Beyond the initial liability of a motor carrier failing to properly inspect a new applicant’s history, the annual review requires the company to yearly audit the driver’s record for any significant moving violation convictions accumulated during the course of his employment. “The motor carrier must consider the driver’s accident record and any evidence that the driver has violated laws governing the operation of motor vehicles and must give great weight to violations, such as speeding, reckless driving, and operating while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that indicate that the driver has exhibited a disregard for the safety of the public.” 49 CFR § 391.25(b)(2) [Emphasis supplied]
Even convictions for certain offenses in the driver’s personal vehicle count toward his or her possible disqualification as a commercial driver’s license (CDL) driver. See 49 CFR § 383.51. The failure to perform the required annual review or the outright disregard of multiple violations is evidence of negligent retention by the carrier.
The prospective motor carrier employer must also investigate whether in the previous three years, the potential new driver had violated the alcohol and controlled substance prohibitions delineated under subpart B of part 382. See 49 CFR § 391.23 (e)(1). Generally, the first violation of this rule by either a refused drug/alcohol screening or a positive test result carries with it an automatic 180-day disqualification. Evidence that a prospective motor carrier simply failed to review the drug testing history of a defendant driver could be construed as consciously indifferent to the motoring public’s safety on the part of the company. The egregiousness of this conduct is amplified when the motor carrier also fails to make its driver submit to a required post-collision drug and alcohol screening.
Respondeat Superior/Admission Of Agency Defense
Oftentimes, the defense lawyer will “admit” in their answer (or subsequent pleadings) that the driver was operating the company vehicle in the course and scope of their employment at the time of the wreck. The objective by the defense admitting “respondeat superior” is to defeat any derivative claim against the company for negligent hiring, retention and punitive damages. The rationale is that by admitting that the company is responsible for the conduct of the driver, there is no separate claim against the motor carrier for any regulatory violations in driver screening. It is a calculated risk, as admitting agency sacrifices the defense’s ability to get the motor carrier dismissed as a named party by dispositive motion.
There is a split authority on whether such an admission will actually defeat the hiring and retention claims. Despite the holding in Bartja v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., 218 Ga. App. 815 (1995); Durben v. American Materials, Inc., 232 Ga. App. 750, 751 (1998); and Western Industries v. Poole, 280 Ga. App. 378 (2006), the prevailing standard is that a valid claim for punitive damages against the company will allow the hiring and retention claims to proceed to a jury. Smith at 829. Bartja, Durben and Poole were predicated on a narrow set of relatively non-aggravating facts in which the company admits respondeat superior. These cases are quite distinguishable from most claims involving commercial drivers.
The Court of Appeals found in Bartja that upon hiring the driver, the employer had complied with federal regulations mandating an investigation of the driver’s driving record for the previous three years. Bartja at 819. The record revealed two moving violations and three prior accidents, but none of the incidents would have disqualified him as a driver under the applicable federal regulations. Id. at 818.
In Durben, the plaintiff brought claims for punitive damages as well as negligent hiring/retention/entrustment and cited only a single prior incident of the defendant driver evidenced through an uncertified prior complaint and police report. Durben, 232 Ga. App. at 752. She also provided materials she had obtained from the defendant driver’s prior employer without accompanying testimony. Id. The court predicated part of its ruling on a lack of competent evidence in support of the facts submitted by plaintiff in Durben. Id. at 753.
In Western Industries v. Poole, the defendant hired Shareef as a driver in 2002 when he had only one prior moving violation conviction on his record that had resulted in a license suspension. Id. at 379. Western Industries required no motor vehicle record authorization at the time of hire and merely included questions on the application inquiring whether Shareef had been convicted of violations in the past three years. Western Industries v. Poole, 280 Ga. App. at 379. Shareef pled nolo to a citation for failure to maintain lane when causing a wreck in a company vehicle and was fired by Western Industries as a result. Id. at 379-380.
The Court of Appeals rendered fairly unfavorable rulings for the plaintiffs in the Bartja, Durben and Poole cases. However, these cases represent the rare occasion when the motor carrier admitted respondeat superior, substantially complied with all of the federal regulations governing driver screening and no major history of driver violations existed anyway. There will certainly be trucking cases when the evidence demonstrates no major compliance issues or problems with a driver history. However, preparation and study of the federal regulations are crucial to the survival of these claims with the trial court. The plaintiff’s lawyer should consider a standard of care expert early on to guide them through the regulations and document production prior to deposition.
The plaintiff’s counsel must exhaustively develop the facts in their cases to maximize their impact for both the trial court and jury. The inflammatory nature of a company’s conduct does not magically appear at trial. The facts that support hiring and retention liability require extensive development in pre-suit research and discovery.
Interplay With Punitive Damages
If a motor carrier is the employer and does admit respondeat superior, then the question becomes how to develop a valid claim for punitive damages as delineated by the Smith v. T.R.T.C. exception. 209 Ga. App. at 829. In many instances, evidence of the company’s conduct may be egregious enough to justify punitive damages under Georgia law. Aldworth Company v. England, 286 Ga. App. 1 (2007) or TGM Ashley Lakes v. Jennings, 264 Ga. App. 456, 460 (2004), are two cases that are instructive on this area of the law. In Aldworth Company v. England, the Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict for punitive damages against a motor common carrier for negligent hiring and retention.
Aldworth involved a driver who failed to disclose numerous driving citations on his application and a company that failed to follow numerous legal duties in investigating the driver’s history. Id. at 4. The court noted that the company “violated its own internal operating procedures in not investigating any of the driver’s infractions.” Id. at 4. [Emphasis supplied] As such, the Court of Appeals held that the evidence met the “clear and convincing” standard of O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b) and was sufficient for the jury to find that Keystone had “demonstrated that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences,” supporting an award of punitive damages. Id.
Aldworth is notable in that it recognizes that punitive liability can attach to a company’s violation of its own internal operating procedures when screening the safety of a driver. This underscores the importance of obtaining all safety policies and procedures and driver handbooks from the company prior to deposition. Direct violations of company policies and procedures in driver screening, whether intentional or not, meet the clear and convincing standard required to establish punitive liability under Georgia law. Id. The plaintiff’s lawyer must have a solid understanding of these policies prior to the driver and safety director’s depositions.
Similarly, punitive damages are also justified when there is clear and convincing evidence that a company “displayed a conscious indifference to the possibility that an underinvestigated employee was involved in a series of crimes that could foreseeably lead to violent results.” TGM Ashley Lakes v. Jennings, 264 Ga. App. 456, 590 S.E.2d 807, 817 (2003). Despite TGM Ashley Lakes v. Jennings being a premises liability case, the holding reinforces the notion that a company’s failure to follow its own hiring/screening policies is clear and convincing evidence of punitive conduct. Id.
II. Building The Case
There are numerous ways to gain an understanding of the defendant driver’s prior safety history. The process of establishing hiring/retention liability against the company generally requires methodical discovery efforts and thorough depositions of company personnel. However, at the outset of the case, there is an assortment of pre-suit techniques to determine if there is evidence of a negligent hiring and retention claim against the company. Given the extensive driving history most CDL drivers have, there is usually a wealth of information that can be obtained.
A. Open Records Act Requests
There are many invaluable nuggets of information that can be gathered in a very short period of time following the wreck initially. The Open Records Act request serves as the most efficient and least costly method for obtaining a basic understanding of the defendant’s driving history pre-suit.
1. Records From The Defendant Driver’s Home County
As a starting point, consider sending an Open Records Act request to the Superior, State, Magistrate and Municipal Courts for the county and city where the defendant driver resides. Request certified copies of convictions for any and all prior felonies, misdemeanors or other crimes from the State and Superior courts in the county where the driver resides. Additionally, send a similar request to the driver’s local sheriff’s office and police department requesting any and all incident reports, arrest records, charges or other investigative documents for the driver at his current address. (See Appendix for examples.) Even though over-the-road drivers generate violations all over the country, you will be surprised at how many citations are usually issued to these defendants in their own counties.
2. Records From Georgia DPS – Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program
The Georgia Department of Public Safety will maintain any records of prior violations issued by the Motor Carrier Compliance Division (MCCD). These records will include any violations of the FMCSR on file that occurred inside the state of Georgia. This will provide a preview of any safety violations on record with the company prior to exchanging discovery. (See Appendix.)
These requests are useful in determining whether the motor carrier (or its lawyer) is being forthright in disclosing all violations within its initial document production. However, these records do not provide a full perspective on the driver’s history of violations, given that many defendants are over-the-road drivers with citations in different states.
B. Safersys.org/SMS Results Search
Any commercial vehicle with a Department of Transportation (DOT) number will have a history on Safersys.org; federally reportable wrecks involving commercial motor vehicles will generally have a post-crash report. It is important to perform a Safersys search right away from the initial information provided about the motor carrier in the accident report.
The FMCSA, which runs the Safersys portal, will not release the name, driver’s license number or any specific identifying information of the drivers with the prior violations. It is important to use the VIN and license plate numbers for the power unit on the accident report and try to match it up with any of the violations listed on the carrier’s SMS Results page on Safersys.org.
In the course of a driver’s employment with the company, the reassignment of power units is generally infrequent. This means that the plaintiff’s lawyer should be able to match up the VIN/plate number for the power unit involved in the accident report with any other reported violations or crashes on the Safersys portal. Once the case is in suit and you have obtained the motor vehicle record and the driver’s qualification file, you can confirm in deposition that these violations involved the same driver.
C. Freedom Of Information Act Requests
Similar to Open Records Act requests, a battery of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests should be sent to the FMCSA to obtain as much information about the carrier and the driver as possible. (See Appendix for examples.) Often, this request will net multiple reports that were not maintained on the Safersys website. The FMCSA will redact any reference to driver’s names, license numbers and any other identifying information. However, utilize the information obtained from the accident report, citations and Safersys searches to cross-check VIN and plate numbers to see if the same vehicle has had prior violations in their records.
The waiting period for responses to these requests is significant, as the DOT is always backlogged. FOIA requests should be made as early as possible in the case so that the records have been provided before the first company depositions.
III. Discovery Considerations
A. Trucking Interrogatories And Request For Production Of Documents (RPD)
The importance of written discovery cannot be overemphasized in the context of a negligent hiring and retention claim against a motor carrier. Specific items that are vital to claims for negligent hiring and retention include:
Driver’s qualification file/personnel file (which should have the following within it):
o Application for employment
o Copy of the CDL license
o Safety history requests and responses
o Driver’s certification of prior motor vehicle accidents
o Driver’s certification of prior violations of motor vehicle laws
o Driver’s prior employment history
o Carrier’s inquiry into their driving record
o Carrier’s inquiry into their employment record
o Documents regarding carrier’s annual review of their driving record
o Response of each state agency to carrier’s annual inquiry concerning their driving record
o Certification of driver’s road test
o Medical examiner’s certificate
o Statement setting forth in detail any denial, revocation or suspension of any license, permit or privilege to operate a motor vehicle
o Training certificates and training documents
o Drug testing records
o All violations of FMCSR by the driver that have been sent to the company
o Any prior reprimands for violations of safety rules, preventable accidents
o Any complaints received by the company regarding the driver (1-800 How’s My Driving or similar documentation is sometimes available)
Driver manuals, guidelines, rules or regulations issued to drivers by the defendant or kept by the defendant
Company policy and procedure handbook regarding hiring/firing/discipline practices
Safety manuals, brochures, handouts, literature or other written documents pertaining to safety provided to drivers by the defendant or kept by the defendant.
The purpose of these items in the context of developing negligent hiring/retention claims is to get a full understanding of every violation, wreck or reprimand the motor carrier knew about and every internal policy it was required to follow. If the defense fails to provide these items before the driver and safety director’s depositions, the plaintiffs’ lawyer must compel their production. These items are vital to establishing the ‘knew or should have known’ element of these claims.
After the initial exchange of discovery, review the document production closely for items that were not produced or withheld subject to an objection. Put on your calendar a one-week deadline after receiving the document production to get out your 6.4 letter. Fight the privilege battle. Many of these cases languish with unproduced documents that are indispensable to negligent hiring and retention claims. Do not let an unscrupulous risk manager or safety director gut your client’s case through nonproduction of documents.
B. Subpoenas/Non-Party RPDs
Send a subpoena/non-party RPD for all of the following items:
1. The defendant’s motor vehicle record from the Department of Driver Services (DDS) (See Appendix for examples.)
2. The driver’s qualification and personnel file of the driver from all prior employers listed on the driver’s application (See Appendix.)
Obtaining these items serves to independently confirm what the company should have known about the driver either at the time of hire or during the course of their employment. Evidence that the driver’s qualification file does not contain responses from either the state DDS or prior employers supports a finding that the company violated the FMCSR in screening the driver. All of this information should be used in the deposition of the safety director and 30(b)(6) designee.
C. Depositions Of Driver/Safety Director/30b6
Simplify your cross-examination in the deposition of these drivers and safety personnel. Fill in the blanks with non-leading open-ended questions when absolutely necessary, but be prepared enough to conduct the entire deposition with simple true or false inquiries. Demonstrating your authority on the facts and regulations early in deposition sends a message to the deponent that they should not stray from the question or create nonsense explanations.
Walk through all of the violations slow and painstakingly. Given the complexity of the regulations and the vast amounts of records, it is sometimes difficult to designate one fact to every question. Be creative while preparing your outline chapters, and think through the best way to simplify your questions for a jury. It is important to be mindful of how these inquiries fit into your theory of the case.
Although it may be repetitive, keep getting admissions from the driver that each of these violations were on their record at the time of hire. Get the safety director to agree to all of the screening requirements imposed by the FMCSR and company policy. This supports the “should have known” standard of proof. Even in the smaller cases, consider using a videographer for depositions. To the extent that you are required to fight a dispositive motion, these brief video clips can be powerful to the trial judge. Consider attaching a succinct PowerPoint video presentation as an exhibit to your response brief.
The appeal of the hiring/retention claim is that the motor carrier serves as a gatekeeper that should prevent unsafe drivers from being dispatched. The safety departments for these motor carriers are the last line of defense protecting the public from potentially unsafe drivers in 80,000-plus-pound vehicles. Negligent hiring/retention claims are the means through which companies are held to the underlying principles of the FMCSR. These rules were designed to prevent tragedies and keep the public safe. Without the enforcement of these regulations against motor carriers, the purpose of the FMCSR would ring hollow. And, without the diligent efforts of the plaintiff’s counsel in pursuing these claims, this reckless conduct will continue unabated.
 “Evidence was presented in this case that the employer had a legal duty to make certain inquiries into the driver’s qualifications and driving record and failed to do so. Thus, the employer’s lack of actual knowledge of defendant’s incompetency, if such is shown, is not a defense to plaintiff’s claim. To hold that the employer is entitled to summary judgment on the negligent entrustment claim because of its failure to discover the driver’s record is to reward the employer for remaining ignorant despite its legal duty to discover the facts. Such a holding is contrary to commonsense and public policy.” Smith v. T.R.T.C., 209 Ga. App. at 829
 “If the jury finds the employer should have known the driver was an unsafe driver, then the jury could also find that the employer’s permitting him to drive the company-owned truck was a proximate cause of the collision. Thus, neither defendant is entitled to summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages.” Smith v. T.R.T.C., 209 Ga. App. at 829
 The facts show that Glover knew Oliver had been in trouble with the law but kept silent; that TGM did not completely follow its hiring policies; that the TGM hiring process was not designed to determine whether a potential employee had been convicted of a crime; that the property manager, district manager, and regional manager did not do their respective jobs in the process of the hiring of Oliver; that apartment key control policies were routinely violated; that TGM knew that they had a recent series of unforced entries and robberies; that some tenants suspected an employee and one suggested criminal background checks; that Oliver had been caught in an apartment on an unauthorized basis; and that despite all this, management still did not undertake criminal background checks of the small number of employees, control access to the keys or alert residents to the situation. TGM Ashley Lakes v. Jennings, 264 Ga. App. 456, 590 S.E.2d 807, 817 (2003)