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A Truck Driver’s True Employer is Often Hidden Behind Layers of Paperwork

I’m Katelyn Holub, an attorney focusing on personal injury law in northwest Indiana.

Welcome to Personal Injury Primer, where we break down the law into simple terms, provide legal tips, and discuss topics related to personal injury law.

Today’s question comes from a listener who says,

“we got rear ended exiting the freeway by a semi, when we contacted the company named on the door of the tractor, we were told the driver was not with that company, how can this be?”

Well, the answer is, “it’s complicated”.

The trucking industry is heavily regulated, but there are loopholes and those involved in trucking take advantage of them. In short, the companies use the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations to do two things: (1) Limit Liability and (2) Reduce Taxes.

Here are some terms that matter when you try to sort out who is legally responsible for the negligent operation of a semi-tractor trailer: motor carrier, driver, leasee, broker, operating authority, forwarding authority, and independent contractor.

It rarely is easy to sort through the arrangements between the potential responsible parties.

But we need to begin somewhere, and a good starting point is the Bill of Lading and purchase order paperwork on a load. These documents will give us clues about who is legally responsible for a load.

Then we need to look at any agreements with the driver. These are usually called lease agreements. They may label a driver as an independent contractor, but if a company is controlling the driver, that company can be often held legally responsible. The goal is to figure out who is directing the route of the driver, and under whose operating permits the driver is driving (this is where the term operating authority comes into play). You cannot just buy a semi-tractor and operate it to hall loads without a permit. Think of the permit as kinda like a license plate. To operate on the highways a truck needs a license plate of course, but it also needs an operating permit. If a motor carrier has an operating permit, the permit number has to be on the door of the tractor.

Another thing to look at is who owns the truck. This is often complicated. Many times a trucking company will claim to sell a truck to a driver and then claim that the driver owns it, but in reality there is just an arrangement whereby payments are made out of the driver’s pay to go towards purchasing the truck and if the driver quits it goes back to the employer, and there are tax advantages to doing this. Are you confused yet?

Other issues are important to consider as well. Who is doing the background checks on the drivers? Who’s responsible for making sure that a driver passes required drug tests? Who’s checking to make sure their driver’s license doesn’t show a prohibited number of moving violations? If you find out who is doing all these things, which is called “FMCSR compliance” then you’re getting closer to who is actually operating the vehicle and putting it on the road.

So why are we sharing this information? Well, to give you a little bit of a heads up as to how complicated it is when trucking companies and motor carriers and drivers are putting semi-trucks on the road. The attorney’s job is to sort through the legal entanglements and make sure the right parties are sued. And, it is not an easy job.

If you’re ever in a crash with a semi-you we would strongly suggest that you consult an attorney very soon in the process.

I hope you found this information helpful. If you have questions about your legal rights if you get hurt due to the carelessness of another person, or as a result of substandard medical care, or due to a product defect, construction injury, or any other type of personal injury, please give us a call at (219) 736-9700. You can also learn more about us by visiting our website at DavidHolubLaw.com – while there make sure you request a copy of our book “Fighting for Truth”.