Florida Case from 2023 Remains Useful in Countering Vicarious and Statutory Employer Liability Claims Against Transportation Brokers
Houston, Texas (February 5, 2024) – In Pelfrey v. J.B. Hunt Transp., Inc., 2023 Fla. Cir. LEXIS 1580 (Order of May 19, 2023, Cause No. 04-2021-CA-00116), the Circuit Court for the 8th Judicial Circuit of Bradford County, Florida ruled favorably on J.B. Hunt Transportation Company’s motion for summary judgment, which challenged vicarious liability and statutory employer theories.
In the ruling, the Court methodically disassembled the various arguments plaintiff lawyers are currently utilizing around the country in order to avoid federal preemption in cases against transportation brokers. This is a case that should be utilized by counsel for brokers as persuasive authority, particularly in those areas of the country where there are adverse rulings on federal preemption.
This case arises out of a 2018 accident in Starke, Florida, in which a tractor-trailer operated by John Lukens rear ended the plaintiff, Mr. Pelfrey. Lukens, an employee of Rock Island Depot, Inc. (“Rock Island”), was hauling a trailer containing United States Postal Service (“USPS”) equipment. J.B. Hunt Transportation Company (“J.B. Hunt”) acted as a broker for the load between Rock Island and USPS.
Following discovery, J.B. Hunt moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s vicarious liability and statutory agency/employment claims. It also moved for summary judgment on the issue of federal preemption. Ultimately, the court did not reach the preemption issue, instead finding that, as a broker, J.B. Hunt could not be held vicariously liable for any negligence by Mr. Pelfrey.
In reviewing the contracts between the parties and the actual evidence of how this particular load was arranged, the Court concluded that, although J.B. Hunt had federal authority to operate as both a motor carrier and a broker, in this case it only acted in the role of a broker. Nevertheless, the plaintiff argued that J.B. Hunt maintained control of the activities of Rock Island and Pelfrey and should be held liable for their negligence.
The court broke the decision down into three parts: (1) actual agency claims, (2) apparent agency claims, and (3) statutory employer claims. For the following reasons, the court found that the plaintiff did not have credible evidence to proceed under any of these theories.
The Court found that Florida law is settled that, for there to be an actual agency relationship, any control must extend to the manner and means of performing the work, and not merely the right to secure the end result [as a broker]. The Court, citing various authority, found the following to not be evidence of control by brokers:
- Electronic tracking of trailers and equipment does not establish control over the means of transport;
- Selecting the location for pickup of a load;
- Instructing the carrier who to contact should there be questions about a load, as such requests are consistent with an independent contractor relationship; and
- Having requirements in place (lack of moving violations and valid licenses) for carriers does not establish control, but rather simply ensures the drivers are competent. It does not give a broker the right to hire, fire, or discipline the drivers.
The Court held that apparent agency requires that there be a representation to a third party that an entity is, in fact, an agent, and that the third party relied on those representations. Here, the Court found that neither such representation was made, nor that the plaintiff changed any position based on such representation.
A common tactic is for plaintiffs to argue “statutory employer” theories based on Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. This case is no different. Pelfrey argued that J.B. Hunt was a “hidden motor carrier” subject to vicarious liability for the driver’s negligence by virtue of having a contractual responsibility to USPS to transport their property. J.B. Hunt pointed out that it only acted as a broker, had no lease agreement with Rock Island or the driver, and that neither Rock Island nor the driver were employees of J.B. Hunt as defined by federal motor carrier statutes.
The lack of a lease for the equipment between J.B. Hunt and Rock Island was a critical part of the decision here. The Court held that, “[a]bsent a lease, there is no basis for a statutory relationship.” The Court further found that the plaintiff’s theory that J.B. Hunt “wore a motor carrier hat” for the transaction at issue had no merit. The plaintiff argued that because J.B. Hunt entered into a contract with USPS to be legally bound to the transport of goods, it became a statutory employer under federal law. The Court, however, disagreed and held that J.B. Hunt’s contractual obligations to USPS for ensuring the delivery of goods were irrelevant and did not establish liability on the part of J.B. Hunt. The contract between a shipper and broker does not somehow transform the broker into a carrier for liability purposes.
This 32-page opinion is full of useful case citations and arguments for brokers to use in negating vicarious liability claims by plaintiffs, and should be added to the arsenal of arguments in defending negligence claims against them.
For more information on this decision, contact the authors of this alert. To learn more about Lewis Brisbois' capabilities in this area, visit our Transportation Practice page.
Todd A. Gray, Managing Partner - Pittsburgh
Joelle Nelson, Partner and Co-Chair of National General Liability Practice and Transportation Practice
Al Durrell, Partner