Truck driver’s wrongful death suit dismissed

The federal  Motor Carrier Act does not allow the heirs of a tractor-trailer driver to pursue a wrongful-death suit against the owner of the vehicle,  the  Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled.

In a case of first impression, the court affirmed a St. Louis County District Court judge who dismissed the case. The judge said that the act, 49 U.S.C. sec. 14704 (a) (2) creates a private cause of action that is limited to claims for commercial damages and does not encompass wrongful death.

The judge also said that  because the trustee did not plead a registration violation causally related to the death, the heirs could make no claim for failure to comply with federal registration requirements.  The heirs’ only avenue of recovery is through the workers’ compensation statute.

“Because 49 U.S.C. secs. 14704(a)(2) and 14707(a) do not create private causes of action for the wrongful-death claims asserted by the trustee in this action, the district court did not err by concluding that the [Workers’ Compensation Act] provides the exclusive remedy or by dismissing the trustee’s claims under the federal statutes for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted,” said the court in an opinion written by Judge Terri Stoneburner.

The case is Tierney v. Arrowhead Concrete Works, Inc., et al.

Inver Grove Heights attorney Peter Kestner, who practices in the area of negligence suits involving trucking, said that the Minnesota courts followed the lead set by other courts in the country.  “Any way you slice it, this is a workers’ comp case,” he said.

Attorneys for the parties were not available for comment.

 Confined to commercial cases

The decedent was killed in a one-vehicle accident when the brakes of his tractor-trailer failed at the bottom of a hill and the vehicle overturned.  The decedent was employed by respondent J.L. Carlson and Associates, Inc., and his death arose out of his employment.  Carlson had a nondelegable duty to comply with the safety and registrations requirements of the Motor Carrier Act, 49 U.S.C. secs. 13101-14903, the court said.

The wrongful death trustee alleged that Carlson’s acts and omissions relating to the condition of the brakes and suspension system violated the Motor Carrier act, causing the death.

The statute, 49 U.S.C. sec. 14704 (a) (2), provides, in relevant part, “A carrier . . . is liable for damages sustained by a person as a result of an act or omission of that carrier or broker in violation of this part.”  The Court of Appeals agreed with several federal courts and one state supreme court that have held that the private cause of action referred to in the statute is limited to an action for commercial damages.  It relied on Stewart v. Mitchell, decided by the District Court in Kansas in 2002, which found the statute ambiguous and turned to the legislative history, specifically the congressional conference report, which said that the statute applied to the resolution of commercial disputes.

 No claim for improper registration

The court also said the District Court did not err in finding no cause of action under section 14707 (a), which provides for a civil action if a person provides transportation without proper registration. The court said that sec. 14707, when read in conjunction with the rest of the statute, limits private civil actions brought under the section to those injured persons who wish to enforce the registration requirements.

Section 14707 does not provide for a civil action for violations of section 13905, which expedites procedures to revoke registrations of motor carriers that are not operating safely. The Court of Appeals rejected the argument that by failing to comply with safety regulations, the carrier violated the registrations statute.

The court said that section 13902(a) (1) unambiguously requires the secretary of transportation to register a person if the secretary finds that the person is “willing and able to comply” with applicable regulations, including safety regulations.  “But the [wrongful death] trustee has never alleged that Carlson failed to demonstrate that it was willing and able to comply with the regulations at the time it was registered.  Section 13902(a)(5) allows the secretary to hear complaints that allege a failure of a registrant to comply with applicable regulations, but in this case, the trustee does not seek to compel the secretary to hear such a complaint,” the court said.

The court then concluded that with the causes of action under federal law dismissed, the workers’ compensation act bars all other state and common-law claims remaining in the case.

Minnesota Lawyer – November 24, 2010 – By Barbara L. Jones

I highly recommend M&K, not only was the settlement much more than I anticipated, it was a pleasure to work with Pete and his staff. He is professional, polite and straightforward. His knowledge and litigation skill coupled with business manner, helped make the process easy and understandable. His analysis was thoughtful, honest and he explained complex concepts and procedures. I was very pleased with his expertise.
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