Commercial Trucker Hours-of-Service Regulations Invoked in Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Conventional_18-wheeler_truck_diagram.PNGWe recently addressed a wrongful death lawsuit brought in federal court that invokes Nebraska’s fetal death statute, and how that law differs from corresponding statutes in Indiana. The lawsuit, Baumann v. Slezak, et al, also asserts a cause of action for alleged violations of federal commercial truck driving regulations, including restrictions on the number of hours a driver may be behind the wheel without a break. Indiana law has allowed for evidence of regulatory violations in order to prove a claim of negligence, although such evidence may not be sufficient to establish liability by itself.

The Nebraska lawsuit arises from a September 9, 2012 accident on westbound Interstate 80 in western Nebraska. A family traveling through the state in two separate cars was stopped at the rear of a line of traffic, which had backed up nearly a mile because of an accident involving two semi-trailers. Another semi-trailer collided with the back of one of the family’s vehicles. This propelled the car into the family’s other car, which collided with another vehicle. All occupants of the two vehicles died in the accident. The truck driver, Josef Slezak, was allegedly driving at seventy-five miles per hour, and did not slow or stop prior to the collision.

The family’s legal representatives filed suit against Slezak and his employer, alleging negligence per se and violation of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations. The two regulations cited in the complaint prohibit operating a commercial motor vehicle while impaired, such as by fatigue, and regulate the length of time a vehicle operator may drive without rest. The hours-of-service (HOS) regulations prescribe maximum lengths of time a driver can be on-duty or behind the wheel before a required period of time off duty. According to the complaint, Slezak had arrived at a trucking terminal in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at 10:49 a.m. on September 8, and left after less than three hours off duty at 1:49 p.m. The accident occurred more than eighteen hours later, at around 5:19 a.m., and about 920 miles away.

The HOS regulations for a commercial driver hauling property, located at 49 C.F.R. §§ 395.0 et seq., state that a driver must spend at least ten hours off duty after eleven hours of driving. A driver cannot be on duty, which includes the eleven hours of driving, for more than fourteen hours at a time. A driver must spend at least thirty-four hours off duty after spending a total of sixty hours on duty during any seven-day period, or seventy hours during an eight-day period.

The regulations themselves do not give a cause of action to people injured by a driver. Indiana courts, however, have considered the issue of whether regulatory violations may serve as evidence of negligence. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, applying Indiana substantive law, considered this issue in Brandes v. Burbank, 613 F.2d 658 (7th Cir. 1980). The case involved a wrongful death claim on behalf of a man whose car collided with a semi-trailer parked on the side of a highway, where the truck driver had stopped to sleep after multiple hours of driving. The court held that evidence of a regulatory violation could support a finding of negligence, but that additional evidence might be necessary to support a finding of liability for negligence. In the present case, this might mean that proof of a HOS rule violation would not, by itself, prove that the driver was actually fatigued.

At Parr Richey Obremskey Frandsen & Patterson, we help the victims of trucking accidents and their families obtain compensation for their damages. Contact us today online or at (888) 532-7766 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with one of our lawyers.

Web Resources:

Complaint And Jury Demand (PDF file), Case No. 8:12-cv-00383-FG3, Baumann, et al v. Slezak, et al, U.S. District Court, District of Nebraska, October 29, 2012

Photo credit: ‘Conventional 18-wheeler truck diagram’ by H Padleckas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.