The History of Carrier Liability and Value of Advanced Carrier Monitoring

Carrier monitoring is crucial in the transportation industry, ensuring the motor carriers that are put on a load are safe and compliant today, tomorrow, and when the next load is dispatched. Today’s shippers and brokers need to know how to check an MC number; check the DOT status; and verify if a DOT authority is still active for the motor carriers they hire. Yes, there are many ways to assess the validity of an active DOT number or to complete a DOT lookup, but they can be confusing. And, what is the importance for carrier monitoring if you can review any of this data on demand?

Technically, the DOT number status is only updated when two major events occur, gaining authority or having authority revoked, and it’s up to the hiring shipper or broker to check DOT number status at regular intervals and validate such authority. But the number of checks you can run in the system is problematic, especially if you have hundreds to review at any given interval.

US DOT number lookup ensures balanced scales of justice

Courts have proven that not verifying the safety status, MC number status, and liability insurance can lead to severe consequences and legal responsibility after an accident. As a result, companies need to know the facts of commercial vehicle carrier monitoring and what cases shaped its need. In this blog, we will explore the evolution of carrier monitoring from the various legal precedents that have shaped its future. Let’s take a closer look at the history leading up to the absolute need for due diligence in handling and reviewing transportation industry data and why it’ll help you check that a trucking company is safe, licensed, and insured. 

Early Legal Precedents (1938-1958)

Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson (1938)

One of the earliest legal cases that indirectly laid the foundation for carrier monitoring is Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, as shared by Walter G. Latimer via The Florida Bar. The case resulted in a major ruling: motor carriers would now be held accountable for any damages caused by the negligent driving of their vehicles by another person. 

This ruling shifted the responsibility onto motor carriers for any harm caused by the careless actions of their drivers. 

Palmer v. R.S. Evans, Jacksonville, Inc. (1958)

Latimer further noted how the case of Palmer v. R.S. Evans, Jacksonville, Inc. brought additional clarity to the conversation around liability in transport. It distinguished between “bare legal title” and “beneficial ownership and control,” highlighting the importance of control over the motor carrier’s use.

Shifting Focus to Employer Liability (1977-1981)

Clooney v. Geeting (1977)

The Clooney v. Geeting (1977) case made it possible to sue trucking companies for hiring negligent drivers, not just the drivers themselves. The change in focus emphasized the gravity that carriers must take when hiring individual drivers. This added need for due diligence would set the stage for keeping employers liable for their actions on a larger scale too.

Mercury Motors Express, Inc. v. Smith (1981)

The Mercury Motors Express, Inc. v. Smith case reinforced the vicarious liability concept, emphasizing the trucking company’s control over the driver and what caused an injury. In turn, this meant that carriers are ultimately liable for what a driver does without regard to who is at fault. In other words, the professional driver could theoretically be at fault even if the cause of an incident is beyond his control. Following all other prior precedent would also imply that the employer could carry the liability as the presumed agent and interjected party between the shipper and the driver. (setting the stage for brokers whose actions were construed to show control over the driver)

Crowell v. Clay Hyder Trucking Lines, Inc. (1987)

Latimer further noted across his research another interesting precedent. The Crowell v. Clay Hyder Trucking Lines, Inc. (1987) case highlighted the significance of applying vicarious liability principles in interstate commerce, ensuring certainty, risk, and uniformity of results. In other words, the liability could be extended beyond a single state’s borders to consider drivers with interstate authority. As a result, the complexity of understanding a driver’s authority increased. 

Modern Considerations (2000 to Present)

Schramm v. Foster (2004)

The Schramm v. Foster (2004) case involving C.H. Robinson is recognized as the first case establishing “broker liability” in the United States. This case underscores the paramount importance of exercising due diligence when hiring a motor carrier or risk the potential for negligence.  In this case, the burden to check the carrier’s safety information to ensure compliance with an internal guideline came into play. The case, which would take more than two years to result in a decision from the original accident, occurring in 2002, found that C.H. Robinson was liable for a driver’s negligent behavior. 

The driver (Foster) for the company that Robinson hired exited an interstate highway in Maryland, ran a stop sign at the end of the off-ramp, failed to stop or yield to on-coming traffic, and collided with a pickup driven by Schramm. The roof of the pick-up was severed and  Schramm and his passenger suffered severe and debilitating injuries.  Foster had been driving in excess of the max number of hours allowed.  His company did not have the minimum safety rating as required to do work for Robinson.  

This was among the first lightning rod events that would jolt the entire 3PL and freight brokerage industry because it meant that a shipper or broker could be sued for negligent hiring if they knew or should have known that the motor carrier was not safe. 

The court noted that “[t]his duty to use reasonable care in the selection of carriers includes: (1) to check the safety statistics and evaluations of the carriers with whom it contracts available on the SafeStat database maintained by FMSCA, and (2) to maintain internal records of the persons with whom it contracts to assure that they are not manipulating their business practices in order to avoid unsatisfactory SafeStat rating.”

It heralded a changing tide–that all brokers and intermediaries would need to improve their processes for reviewing, selecting, and monitoring all trucking companies with which they work as well as ensure they have no agency control over the carrier and their drivers.

Sperl v. Robinson Worldwide Inc (2009)

Although unrelated to the Schramm decision, C.H. Robinson found itself in another liability lawsuit two years later in 2004, but the verdict would take years to settle. It wasn’t until March 2009 that an Illinois jury awarded a $23.7 million judgment against C.H. Robinson. 

Still, the appeals process continued, and in 2011, the 3rd District Illinois Appellate Court panel opted to uphold the 2009 ruling and keep C.H. Robinson on the hook for vicarious liability, not for negligence or unsafe acts, but for exercising control over the driver’s actions, noted DC Velocity

This judgment followed an interstate collision in April 2004, resulting in two deaths and five injuries. In this case, the driver and the carrier both admitted to negligence, with the driver charged with driving on a suspended license and falsifying her logbook. The jury, however,  determined that the driver was C.H. Robinson’s agent, making the company liable for the damages arising from the carrier’s negligence.

The legal implications of the Schramm and the Sperl cases serve as a powerful reminder to companies who hire motor carriers of the need for stringent due diligence when vetting and on-going monitoring of a motor carrier’s safety, authority, and liability insurance data through the Safer Web database. 

The Value of Carrier Monitoring

Carrier monitoring may seem solely like a nice-to-have function, but its legal precedence goes back further than many realize. A carrier selection process is dependent on publicly available data maintained by the FMCSA, and this data can change daily.  Carrier monitoring is all about keeping shippers and brokers up-to-date on changes that may affect their decision to hire a particular carrier, which in turn, helps to protect them from negligent selection while promoting safety and compliance standards across all of their carriers. 

But what does it really mean for a broker or shipper, and what’s the true value of engaging in carrier monitoring?

  • Shippers and Brokers Use It to Verify Motor Carrier Data. Regularly checking the status of carriers through data distribution tools that connect to the DOT number lookup, company snapshot, and roadside inspections helps identify potential red flags and ensures carriers operate within legal boundaries.
  • Shippers and Brokers Can Validate Insurance Coverage. This added level of protection by reviewing insurance data helps to lessen the liability for a 3PL or shipper by ensuring all hired motor carriers are carrying the right insurance and have the proper endorsements for transporting goods within or beyond state lines. 
  • Carrier Monitoring Enables Better Hiring Decisions. While the long-held beliefs that 3PLs and brokers were not an agent of a driver, the precedent showed otherwise. With so much on the line, brokers and 3PLs must review the data as if that contracted obligation rises to the level of an actual employee. It emphasizes the importance of up-to-date data to use in establishing due diligence when making any hiring decision.
  • Carrier Monitoring Reduces Freight Loss and Damage. The biggest sums awarded in the modern cases go far beyond what a load might be worth. Still, proper carrier monitoring has value in keeping cargo damage-free. If the driver or company contracted by the broker has an accident, there could easily be hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost product. 

Overcome the Challenges of Carrier Monitoring With Carrier Details

Carrier monitoring is a simple and superficial process when you think about reviewing one carrier. You would utilize resources provided by the DOT and the FMCSA to pull the data profile and review your findings. The FMCSA website offers valuable information, including crash reports, safety ratings, and insurance data, but navigating it will always be challenging. 

Let’s complicate that narrative and think about what happens when you have hundreds of motor carriers to review. When do you throw up your hands and hope for the best, or is there another solution? 

The answer lies in leveraging automated data retrieval and aggregation capabilities through technology. That’s where the most significant opportunity for leveraging both the benefits of ongoing carrier monitoring and keeping your records clean exists. Carrier Details can tackle the burden for you, providing a seamless, updated data stream to power your records, systems, and resources. Connect with Carrier Details to get started. 

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