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Trial News


State negligence claim against freight broker not preempted in crash case, says 9th Cir.

Maureen Leddy October 22, 2020

The Ninth Circuit has allowed a man who was seriously injured after colliding with a semi-tractor-trailer to bring a state negligence claim against the freight broker who hired the truck’s driver, reversing a district court’s ruling finding preemption. The Ninth Circuit held 2-1 that while the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA) preempts state laws “related to” a freight broker’s services, the man’s claim falls under the state safety law exception to FAAAA preemption. AAJ filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff. (Miller v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, 2020 WL 5757013 (9th Cir. Sept. 28, 2020).)

In December 2016, a semi-tractor-trailer hauling a load for Costco Wholesale Corp. overturned in icy conditions, blocking Interstate 80 in Nevada. Allen Miller suffered quadriplegia after his vehicle collided with the tractor-trailer. He sued several parties, including freight broker C.H. Robinson Worldwide, in Nevada federal district court alleging state common law negligence claims. He argued that the freight broker “had a duty to select a competent contractor to transport” the load and had breached this duty by selecting interstate motor carrier RT Service, which had a history of safety violations, and that this decision “demonstrate[d] indifference to the life, rights or safety of . . . Miller and others.”

C.H. Robinson countered that the FAAAA preempts Miller’s negligence claim because it “concerns the services a freight broker provides in the transportation of property, particularly, the selection of a motor carrier to transport goods on behalf of a shipper.” That statute provides that states cannot enact and enforce laws “related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier . . . or any private motor carrier, broker, or freight forwarder with respect to the transportation of property.” The district court agreed, noting that Miller’s claim seeks to “reshape the level of service a broker must provide in selecting a motor carrier to transport property,” contravening Congress’s intent in enacting the FAAAA—to avoid a patchwork of state motor carrier regulations. The district court rejected Miller’s argument that his claim falls within an exception to FAAAA preemption that preserves for states “safety regulatory authority” over motor vehicles and their cargo, interpreting that exception narrowly.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed that Miller’s claim is “related to” C.H. Robinson’s services and therefore falls within the scope of FAAAA preemption. However, the court reversed the district court, finding that the FAAAA’s safety exception applies. The safety exception provides that the FAAAA “shall not restrict the safety regulatory authority of a State with respect to motor vehicles.” C.H. Robinson had argued that “safety regulatory authority” does not encompass state common law tort claims and that even if it did, Miller’s claim was not “with respect to motor vehicles.” But the FAAAA was enacted because Congress was concerned with state economic regulation of the trucking industry, the court said, and Congress’s “clear purpose” in enacting the exception was to preserve state authority over safety matters. That authority, the court said, “plainly includes the ability to regulate safety through common-law tort claims.” The court added that it would be nonsensical to save from preemption state tort claims that have been codified, as in California, but not tort claims that are based on a state’s common law. A broad reading of the safety clause is appropriate, the court said, because there is “no indication in the FAAAA’s legislative history that Congress intended to limit the safety exception” to “police power,” as the defendant suggested.

The Ninth Circuit then evaluated whether Miller’s claim satisfies the safety exception’s requirement that a claim is “with respect to motor vehicles.” C.H. Robinson argued that it did not select the truck’s driver or own the truck involved in the crash, and Miller’s claim relates to its freight-brokering conduct, not a motor vehicle. The court disagreed, finding that the safety exception exempts from preemption a claim that is connected to motor vehicles, “whether directly or indirectly.” For example, the court noted, a criminal history disclosure requirement for tow truck drivers has been upheld as having “the requisite ‘connection with’ motor vehicles” although it does not directly regulate a vehicle, but rather “promotes safety on the road.” State negligence claims against freight brokers which also have the purpose of promoting safety on the road likewise have this requisite connection with safety on the road.

Franklin, Tenn., attorney Matthew Wright, who drafted AAJ’s amicus brief along with Inver Grove Heights, Minn., attorney Peter Kestner, called the decision “a much-needed first step in a still lengthy fight for our clients and victims.” Wright added that “the defense bars and their allies have engaged in a unified attack on victims’ access to justice on a nationwide basis for the past several years by arguing the FAAAA abolishes fundamental legal rights. These organizations simultaneously oppose our suggestions to improve highway safety and oppose requiring motor carriers to carry adequate liability insurance. Until now, there had not been a federal circuit court case that had decided whether the FAAAA preempted victims’ right to recover.”

Toledo, Ohio, attorney Rena Leizerman, one of Miller's attorneys, was “glad the Ninth Circuit followed the great majority of trial courts on this issue.” Miller’s other attorney, Michael Leizerman, also of Toledo, added that “the result of this decision is that transportation brokers will be required to follow the law of reasonable care like everybody else.” He “hopes Miller, who was rendered a quadriplegic at just 27 years old, will finally be able to receive justice and the resources he needs to care for himself.”