Alabama Supreme Court Addresses Qualified Immunity of Commercial Truck Driver and Exclusivity Doctrine Protection for Trucking Company
The Alabama Supreme Court recently released its opinion in Jackson v. Voncille Allen and Penn Tank Lines, Inc. The plaintiff, Patrick Jackson, was riding in the passenger seat of a commercial vehicle being operated by Valerie Allen, an owner/operator leased to Penn Tank Lines (PTL). Allen was killed in the accident, and Jackson alleged severe injuries. Jackson sued Allen’s estate, asserting that Allen’s negligence had caused the accident, and asserted claims of negligent hiring, training, and supervision against PTL, as well as vicarious liability for Allen’s actions through the doctrine of respondeat superior. Allen’s estate claimed it was entitled to immunity pursuant to § 25-5-53 of The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, which provides that agents of the same employer are immune to civil liability, except those based on willful misconduct. PTL claimed it was immune pursuant to § 25-5-52 and § 25-5-53 as Jackson’s employer and because Allen was PTL’s agent.
In support of its position, PTL argued that it was leasing the commercial vehicle from Allen and had exclusive possession, control, and use of the vehicle. PTL also asserted that Allen was training Jackson at the time of the accident, and that Allen was therefore an agent of PTL. Finally, PTL asserted that under Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations, an owner/operator of a commercial vehicle, despite her status as an independent contractor, is deemed to be an employee of the motor carrier while operating the commercial vehicle. PTL and Allen’s estate both filed motions for summary judgment, and Jackson argued that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether Allen’s estate and PTL were entitled to immunity.
In support of his position, Jackson pointed out that the independent owner/operator agreement between Allen and PTL specified that Allen would use her own judgment when conducting her work, PTL could not require Allen to accept specific assignments, and that PTL had not withheld taxes from Allen’s pay. Jackson further asserted that although Allen had been required to comply with PTL’s policies and procedures, Allen was required to provide her own safety clothing, shoes, and equipment. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of both defendants, and Jackson subsequently appealed.
The Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of PTL as Jackson’s employer, but reversed the trial court’s judgment to the extent that it found Allen was PTL’s agent as a matter of law. The Supreme Court noted that the test for determining whether one is an agent or an independent contractor is whether the principal/employer retained a right of control, and that such determination was a question of fact that should generally be decided by the jury. However, the decision was not unanimous. Justices Bolin and Sellers concurred in part and dissented in part, stating that it is possible for someone to be both an independent contractor and an agent at the same time. However, both agreed the undisputed material facts established that Allen was acting as an agent at the time of the accident.
About the Author
This article was written by Charley M. Drummond, Esq. of Fish Nelson & Holden, LLC. Fish Nelson & Holden is a law firm located in Birmingham, Alabama dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation cases and related liability matters. Drummond and his firm are members of The National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN). The NWCDN is a national and Canadian network of reputable law firms organized to provide employers and insurers access to the highest quality representation in workers’ compensation and related employer liability fields. If you have questions about this article or Alabama workers’ compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or (205) 332-3414.