Fowler White Burnett P.A. (Miami, FL) Hauls in Florida Victory for Client J.B. Hunt

On May 19, 2023, Bradford County Circuit Court Judge George M. Wright entered a 32-page Order granting transportation services provider, J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc.’s motion for final summary judgment in this hard-fought case, ruling that the J.B. Hunt had, in fact, acted as a broker and not a motor carrier, and that the “broker vs. motor carrier” analysis, usually applicable in cargo claims, did not apply.

By way of brief background, the action arose out of a motor vehicle in 2018 in Starke, Florida, in which Plaintiff, Michael Pelfrey was injured when a tractor-trailer operated by CDL-holder, John Lukens for licensed motor carrier, Rock Island Depot rear-ended Plaintiff’s truck. Lukens was hauling  USPS equipment. The broker had arranged for the transport of USPS equipment pursuant to its multi-year contract with the USPS for the provision of intermodal transportation services. In 2021, Plaintiff filed an action in circuit court in Bradford  County, Florida, against J.B. Hunt, Rock Island and Lukens. J.B. Hunt was the main target of the case since Rock Island was only insured up to $1 million, and Plaintiff’s medical expenses, alone, exceeded that amount. The Complaint alleged that under Florida law J.B. Hunt was directly negligent in hiring and retaining Rock Island and Lukens and that it was vicariously liable for the negligence of Rock Island and Lukens under theories of actual agency and “statutory employer.” Plaintiff asserted that J.B. Hunt should be deemed Lukens’ statutory employer because it was not acting as a broker, but as a motor carrier. In the alternative, Plaintiff argued that J.B. Hunt was Rock Island’s employer based on an implied lease agreement of the tractor.

Following extensive discovery of J.B. Hunt employees, particularly with respect to its various programs and the USPS contract, Rock Island’s owner and Lukens, Plaintiff disclosed Ken Lacey as its “trucking expert.” The Court ultimately granted J.B. Hunt’s Daubert motion to exclude Mr. Lacey’s opinions on the ground that they were not scientific and lacked a valid methodology.

J.B. Hunt moved for summary judgment on the following grounds: (1) Rock Island was an independent contractor and not an agent because J.B. Hunt  did not control, or have a right to control, the actions of Rock Island or Lukens; (2) because J.B. Hunt was the broker and did not lease Rock Island’s truck, it had no vicarious liability under any statutory employer theory; and (3) Plaintiff’s claims were preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act. J.B. Hunt argued that as a logistics support provider under its USPS contract, it could elect to broker loads or haul them under its own motor carrier authority and that its responsibility under that contract for persons operating motor vehicles was for the benefit of USPS, not third-parties.

The Court first rejected Plaintiff’s agency claim, finding that there was no evidence that J.B. Hunt acknowledged that Rock Island would as J.B. Hunt’s agent; no evidence that J.B. Hunt had a right to control Rock Island or Lukens’ acts; and no evidence that J.B. Hunt did in fact control the means and manner by which they conducted their trucking operations. Rather, Rock Island owned its own tractor, had its own motor carrier authority and insurance, hired, supervised and paid its drivers, and determined their routes.

But the real blow to the heart of Plaintiff’s case came with the rejection of his “statutory employer” claims. These claims took two forms. Invoking the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, Plaintiff argued that J.B. Hunt had leased Rock Island’s tractor, thereby becoming vicariously liable for the conduct of the negligence of the owner-lessor, Rock Island. Plaintiff’s second theory was that of “hidden motor carrier” — by accepting responsibility to USPS to transport its property, J.B. Hunt was effectively the “motor carrier.” J.B. Hunt demonstrated, however, that the federal definitions of  employer, employee and motor carrier were not relevant in determining whether J.B. Hunt was vicariously liable under Florida law.  Assuming that the definitions were relevant, J.B. Hunt was not the statutory employer for the simple reason that it had not actually leased Rock Island’s truck.  Absent proof of a written or oral lease, there was no basis for finding a statutory employer relationship. Finally, the Court rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that J.B. Hunt was the motor carrier and not the  “broker” within the meaning of the federal regulations because it “legally bound itself and accepted responsibility” to transport the USPS load. Although Plaintiff’s theory drew inspiration from  Carmack Amendment cases, J.B. Hunt convinced the Court that the caselaw pertaining to lost or damaged cargo was irrelevant in determining vicarious liability under state tort law. Under the law and the facts, Rock Island employed Lukens and was vicariously liable for his conduct, not J.B.  Hunt.

Plaintiff’s case against Lukens and Rock Island is set for trial in August, 2023.