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Posted by Susan J. Levy

Last summer, in the case of Clarendon National Insurance Co. v. Johnson, 293 Ga. App. 103 (2008), cert denied 2008 Ga. LEXIS 1004, Plaintiff Johnson was seriously injured when he was struck by Robert “Wesley” Carnley who drove his tractor trailer across the center line into the opposite lane of travel with a load of carpet he had picked up in Calhoun, Georgia, on his way to California.

C & C Motor Freight, run by Robert and Colleen Carnley, Wesley’s parents, had hired him to transport the carpet, but Wesley owned the truck he was driving at the time of the accident and claimed he was an independent contractor. C & C Motor Freight was acting as an independent sales agent under a written contract with American Trans-Freight, LLC, ATF Trucking, LLC, and ATF Logistics, LLC, (collectively “ATF”) and sued Wesley Carnley, his parents, C & C Motor Freight, Inc., the three ATF defendants, and ATF’s insurer, Clarendon National Insurance Co. The driver, Wesley Carnley who was legally blind in one eye and lacked a commercial driver’s license, admitted liability at trial.

The issue on appeal was whether the ATF defendants could be vicariously liable for C & C’s negligent hiring of driver Wesley Carnley. The Court noted that the agreement between the ATF defendants and C & C provided that C & C was an independent contractor with “sole responsibility of the day-to-day operation of its business operations and full control and direction of [its] employees.” Clarendon National Insurance Co. at p. 106. On Motion for Reconsideration, the Court added, “[t]he issue in this case is whether ATF can be held liable when its independent agent hired an unqualified driver, who drove his own truck, for a trip ATF had no knowledge or involvement, based upon a practice of which ATF had no knowledge.” The Court reversed the trial court and found ATF could not be held vicariously liable for C & C or Wesley Carnley’s negligence.

Nevertheless, the three judges seem to show some regret for their inability to help seriously injured plaintiffs like Mr. Johnson:

As one commentator has noted, third party participation in the movement of interstate freight by freight brokers and logistics companies has increased while administrative oversight has diminished. Id. at 110 (citing James C. Hardman, Third Party Surface Transportation – Common Issues in Recent Trends: Third Party Contract Issues Concerning Motor Carriers, Brokers, and Shippers, 34 Transp. L. J. 307 – 308 (Fall 2007)). In this case, the federal regulations simply do not provide a mechanism for Johnson, an injured member of the public, to recover adequate compensation for his injuries. See Schramm [v. Foster, 341 F. Supp. 2d 536, 553 (Md., 2004)], (noting that this is an area ‘in which the law may have to catch up’ and encouraging regulators to act). We cannot, however, allow our sympathy for the plight of those injured by commercial trucks to lead us toward imposing strict liability on a party that does not possess the requisite degree of control over another’s conduct. Clarendon National Insurance Co. at p. 109.

In the end, the Judges felt constrained by the law. In a unanimous decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that (1) The motor carrier was not a statutory employer under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, as the record was devoid of evidence that Wesley Carnley leased himself or his truck to the ATF Defendants;
(2) The carrier was not vicariously liable for C & C’s negligent hiring of Wesley Carnley under O.C.G.A. § 51-2-4 since their agreement established C & C was an independent contractor with full control over its employees; and
(3) Due to a lack of mutual control, vicarious liability could not be based on a joint venture between C & C and the ATF defendants.