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Federal ruling on truck accident liability leaves questions

Every motor vehicle accident that results in the injury or death presents unique questions from a legal perspective. Assigning responsibility and accountability is challenging.

When the accident involves a long-haul commercial tractor-trailer, the questions typically multiply. That's because many trucking companies have gone to great lengths to build multi-layered business arrangements. There might be a parent company at the top. Below that may be the entity owning the truck. Next in line may be a company that leases the vehicle and hires the driver. And then there is the driver.

The purpose of such a strategy is to take advantage of a federal statute called the Graves Amendment. It's been around for just over nine years and its language protects vehicle leasing firms from state laws that might allow them to be held vicarious liability for truck accidents caused by the drivers of those vehicles.

But recently, a federal court judge ruled that the amendment doesn't apply in one particular personal injury case, opening the door to the possibility that multiple entities can be sued for damages.

While our firm is not involved in the matter, the possibility of a precedent being set makes the case worth mentioning.

At the heart of the case is the 2009 death in of a woman who was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer driver. According to reports, the driver was distracted. Having been convicted of second-degree manslaughter, he is now in jail.

The victim's husband is suing and included as defendants are the driver's employer, the trucks' owner and the parent company of both firms.

Attorneys for the firms have sought to have the case thrown out on the basis of the Graves Amendment protections. A federal magistrate in New York's Western District agreed, but a judge overrode that recommendation.

He said most Graves Amendment cases involve situations where truck owners and operators are linked "only by an arm's length contract." In this case, he says the firms are so closely affiliated that the amendment doesn't apply.

It seems likely that the defendants will appeal the decision, so the matter can't be said to be resolved. What this story does reflect is how complicated such cases can be and why experienced legal counsel is important.

Source: Buffalo Law Journal, "Landmark trucking case decided in Buffalo," Michael Petro, Aug. 25, 2014

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