Vetting Drivers Can Minimize Lawsuit Exposure

Attorneys Emphasize Precautions Carriers Must Take
Brandon Wiseman of Trucksafe Consulting (left) and Jerad Childress of Childress Law
Brandon Wiseman, president of Trucksafe Consulting (left) and Jerad Childress, managing partner of Childress Law. (Photos by SunJae Smith/American Trucking Associations)

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MINNEAPOLIS — Failing to ensure that truck drivers meet all the regulatory and safety qualification requirements to drive can come back to haunt motor carriers in accident litigation, according to two transportation attorneys with extensive experience in driver qualification issues.

Brandon Wiseman, owner and president of Trucksafe Consulting, and Jerad Childress, managing partner of Childress Law, said qualifying drivers is critical for motor carriers, not only to be safe but to make sure they don’t become targets of nuclear jury verdicts. They referenced the lessons of the industry’s first-ever billion-dollar injury award, which resulted from a fatal trucking accident in Florida in 2021.

The two attorneys were adamant that carriers must make sure their interstate drivers meet federal licensing requirements, have a safe driving history, possess a current medical card, have passed a drug test and comply with sound driving practices.

Wiseman and Childress spoke at a recent session of American Trucking Associations’ 2023 Safety, Security, Human Resources National Conference & Exhibition.

Wiseman pointed out that an American Transportation Research Institute study of nuclear jury verdicts — those exceeding $1 million — revealed that 100% of 14 cases that resulted in jury verdicts in favor of plaintiffs were the result of driver histories, and 87.5% of 24 cases that were in favor of plaintiffs, were due to unfavorable hiring practices.

“This is not theoretical. It’s happening,” Wiseman said. “Suffice it to say that if you’re not paying attention, my question is are you paying enough attention? Because the consequences here are severe. All it takes is potentially one of these cases where you didn’t do quite enough on the driver qualification front, it can be lights out for you.”

Wiseman said the $1 billion Florida judgment case sends three important lessons for truckers: “Follow the rules, follow the trends and follow your gut.”

Truck Driver Basics

In general, federal requirements for drivers include:

• Being at least 21 years old 

• Being able to read road signs in English

• Having a valid commercial drivers license

• Possessing the training and experience to safely operate a commercial motor vehicle

• Being certified by a medical examiner at least once every two years

Anything else?

A carrier also must make sure a driver has completed and signed a driver application, taken and passed a road test, completed at least three years behind the wheel and ordered a motor vehicle report covering a driver’s experience in every state where he or she has been licensed.

The attorneys also said motor carriers must keep a copy of the driver’s commercial driver license and medical card, ensure the driver’s medical examiner is listed on the national registry and keep a copy of the driver’s record.

“And keep on top of the expiration dates,” Wiseman said. “So many carriers are failing because they are not keeping on top of the expiration dates.”

The two said the rules are only the “floor” — that mere compliance is not enough. Carriers should find out what their competitors are doing to ensure their drivers are safe, and keep tabs on industry standards and top qualification-related trends.

Then there is the element of “following your gut,” according to the attorneys, by turning standards into policies and not deviate from them.

“Ask yourself how your planned actions would play to a jury,” Wiseman said. “Does this pass the ‘smell test?’ ”

It’s also important to make sure that drivers who may only drive intrastate still could be required to follow federal qualification rules. There are instances when a commodity could be classified as being interstate, therefore requiring a carrier’s driver to meet federal requirements, according to Childress.

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