Wrongful Death Lawsuit Seeks to Hold Truck Driver Liable for Hours-of-Service Violations

We previously discussed a Nebraska lawsuit that invoked a statute allowing wrongful death claims on behalf of unborn children. The case involved a truck accident that took the lives of a family and their unborn child. The lawsuit, Baumann v. Slezak, et al, also invoked Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations governing the length of time truck drivers may operate a vehicle or be “on-duty.” The driver who allegedly collided with the family’s car had, according to the complaint, been driving longer than the maximum time period allowed by the regulations.

The accident occurred in the early morning of September 9, 2012. The family, which was traveling cross-country in two cars, was stopped at the rear of a traffic jam on westbound Interstate 80 in western Nebraska. A semi-truck driven by the defendant Josef Slezak approached the line of traffic at about seventy-five miles per hour. The driver allegedly failed to slow or stop the vehicle, hitting the family’s rear car at full speed. This propelled the car into the family’s other car and into another vehicle, killing the occupants of both cars.

The lawsuit names Slezak and his employer as defendants, asserting causes of action for negligence per se, violations of FMCSA regulations, and vicarious liability. The complaint accuses Slezak of violating two FMCSA regulations: a prohibition on operating a commercial motor vehicle while impaired by fatigue or some other cause, and hours-of-service (HOS) rules. Slezak had allegedly been driving for almost nineteen hours. He arrived at a terminal in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, according to the complaint, at 10:49 a.m. on September 8, 2012, and departed at 1:49 p.m. The accident occurred at about 5:19 a.m. on September 9, approximately 920 miles from Milwaukee.

FMCSA’s HOS rules, found at 49 C.F.R. §§ 395.0 et seq., require commercial vehicle drivers hauling property to spend at least ten hours off-duty for every fourteen hours on-duty, with the off-duty period immediately following an on-duty period. During each fourteen-hour on-duty period, the driver can only spend eleven hours driving. If a driver has been on-duty for sixty total hours in a seven-day period, or seventy hours in an eight-day period, the driver must spend thirty-four hours off-duty before driving a commercial vehicle again. Drivers must maintain a log of hours spent on-duty and actually driving.

No court has clearly established a right to recover damages for injuries caused by a driver who violated the HOS rules, but regulatory violations may serve as evidence in support of a negligence finding. Only a few cases appear to have directly addressed the HOS rules in relation to personal injury litigation:
– The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that evidence of a regulatory violation could support a finding of negligence, making reference to the HOS rules in effect at the time. Brandes v. Burbank, 613 F.2d 658, 664-65 (7th Cir. 1980).
– A Georgia federal district court rejected a plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages based on alleged HOS violations, noting that proof of a violation of HOS rules did not, by itself, support an inference of driver fatigue. Bennett v. McGriff Transp., Inc., 841 F.Supp.2d 1313, 1316 (N.D. Ga. 2012).

– A Texas federal district court took a similar approach, dismissing a plaintiff’s claim for violation of HOS rules due to lack of evidence of either excessive hours or driver fatigue. Williams v. Ozark Motor Lines, No. 4:06-CV-032-A (N.D. Tex. 2006).

The attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen help people in the Washington, DC area recover their just compensation when they have suffered injuries in commercial trucking accidents or other incidents caused by the negligent or unlawful conduct of others. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.

Web Resources:

Complaint and Jury Demand (PDF file), Case No. 8:12-cv-00383-FG3, Baumann, et al v. Slezak, et al, U.S. District Court, District of Nebraska, October 29, 2012

More Blog Posts:

Maryland Trucking Company Shut Down by Safety Regulators, but It Is No Relief to Accident Victims, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, February 17, 2012
Possible New FMCSA Hours-of-Service Regulations on Commercial Truck Drivers Create Controversy, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, September 29, 2011
NTSB Urges Ban on Cell Phones for Truck Drivers, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, September 23, 2011
Photo credit: ‘I-80 (NE) map’ by 25or6to4 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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