What are Plaintiffs Doing to Skirt the Graves Amendment?

The Graves Amendment, passed in 2005 and codified at 49 U.S.C. § 30106, bars an action for vicarious liability under state law against commercial lessors of motor vehicles involved in motor vehicle accidents, provided that the lessor is free from negligence or criminal wrongdoing. Courts across the country have used the Amendment to protect lessors of tractors, trailers, and intermodal chassis. New York courts have been leaders in protecting rights under the Graves Amendment, especially against New York’s infamous vicarious liability statute, Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388. So, what are the plaintiffs’ lawyers doing to avoid the Graves Amendment?

A double-truck head-on collision, and a downtown New York terrorist attack, illustrate the cleverness of the plaintiffs’ bar. The former is seen in the Illinois federal court case of Favorite v. Sakovsky (August 16, 2019). The terrorist attack is at the center of Grandelli v. City of New York, in Manhattan state court (September 24, 2019). In each horrible case the plaintiffs’ attorneys attempt to increase the pool of financially viable defendants, and to avoid the Graves Amendment.

In Favorite, widow Stephanie Favorite sued the Sakovski estate, BB Wolf, Inc., and Compass Truck Rental and Leasing, the company that leased the Sakovski truck to BB Wolf. She alleged that Compass negligently entrusted the truck to BB Wolf, and should have known that BB Wolf might employ an incompetent driver. Specious as the allegation was, the court denied Compass’s Graves Amendment motion to dismiss because there had been no discovery as yet. A full fact development might support Compass, but the bare complaint did state a cause of action for negligent entrustment.

In Grandelli, Sayfullo Saipov rented a pick-up truck from Home Depot and drove it into a crowd of pedestrians and bicyclists in lower Manhattan, killing eight people. The estate of one victim brought suit against the City and several agencies, and also against Home Depot, alleging that the truck’s lessor negligently entrusted the truck to Saipov, in spite of certain “red flags” from law enforcement publications to be on the lookout for customers who might use a truck to commit terrorist attacks. Home Depot made a Graves Amendment motion to dismiss before conducting any discovery. The court in New York County denied the motion without prejudice, on the incomplete record before it. The court held that the complaint sufficiently stated a case for negligent entrustment, which circumvents the Graves Amendment.

Only one appellate court has considered whether a negligent entrustment claim is barred by the Graves Amendment. In Carton v. GMAC (2010), the Eighth Circuit ruled that vicarious liability claims are barred, but a claim of negligent entrustment, not just negligent maintenance of a leased vehicle, can create an exception to the Graves Amendment. But in this case, the court held plaintiff’s allegations failed to rise to the level of negligent entrustment.

For now, equipment lessors will continue to face negligent entrustment claims, likely unprotected by the Graves Amendment. Lessors should be prepared to present proof of careful practices and procedures to thwart claims of negligent entrustment.

CA Federal Court Restrains Enforcement of “ABC Test” for Motor Carriers

Edward J. Schwartz United States Courthouse

A federal district court in southern California issued a temporary restraining order on New Year’s Eve barring the enforcement of the state’s Assembly Bill 5, set to go into effect on New Year’s Day. AB 5 adopted the “ABC test” to determine if a particular worker is an independent contractor or an employee. The test hits particularly hard on the motor carrier industry, because many trucking companies use legitimate independent contractors – owner-operators – as part of their business model. The court’s decision was compelled largely because under the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (“FAAAA”), states are not to enact or enforce their own laws related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier regarding transportation of property. The TRO applies only to the motor carrier industry.

The ABC test presumes that a worker is an employee, not an independent contractor. The hiring party can rebut that presumption only if it can establish each of three factors:

  • The person is free from the control and direction of the hiring party in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact.
  • The person performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.
  • The person is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

Rebutting the presumption is virtually impossible for a motor carrier, because it cannot meet Prong B. The owner-operator will always be within, not outside, the usual course of business of the hiring motor carrier. Thus, the California Trucking Association and several members of the industry brought the legal challenge.

Judge Benitez granted the TRO, holding that the plaintiffs had met their burden to show 1) they are likely to succeed on the merits, 2) they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of relief, 3) the balance of the equities tips in their favor, and 4) the requested relief is in the public interest.

Although this is a very preliminary victory, it signals what may come from Judge Benitez on the motion for a preliminary injunction and, ultimately, the outcome of the case at the trial level. There is still a long road to travel, but this outstanding beginning sends a signal to the states that the Congress has a preemptive role in motor carriers’ business regulation. Notably, New Jersey has just enacted legislation adopting the ABC test, and for the same reasons as are evident in California. Will New Jersey’s legislation, too, be found to interfere with Congressional regulation of motor carriers? We will be watching.

John Lane Named Co-Chair of the Transportation ADR Council

John has been named co-chair of the Transportation ADR Council, an arm of the Transportation Lawyer’s Association, a nationwide organization of attorneys in corporate, government, and private practice in the field of transportation law. Together with the ADR Council’s other newly-named co-chair, Dan Fulkerson, Esq., of Houston, John will manage the arbitration/mediation apparatus for resolution of legal disputes arising in the transportation industry.

Recognizing the value of alternate dispute resolution and the benefit it would avail to members of the transportation industry, John along with several other TLA members, sought to create a body of rigorously-trained arbitrators and mediators who are experts in transportation law, and a system of arbitration procedures that accommodate the parties. Under the leadership of Steve Uthoff, Esq. and Eric Benton, Esq., they formed the Transportation ADR Council.

In addition to his role with the ADR Council, John is a member of the American Arbitration Association, the New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators, the Garibaldi Inn of Court for Alternative Dispute Resolution, the Dispute Resolution Sections of the New Jersey and New York State Bar Associations, and has recently been accepted as an arbitrator for the Financial Industry Regulatory Agency, FINRA. John also serves as a mediator in the Superior Court of New Jersey.

Learn more about the TLA and the ADR Council at https://translaw.org.