Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Summary Judgment in Wrongful Death Case Against Freight Broker

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December 19, 2014
Sandra Cukierski and Lew Bricker
SmithAmundsen Transportation Alert
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On December 9th, 2014, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed summary judgment entered in favor of C.H. Robinson in the case of Hayward v. C.H. Robinson Company, Inc., et al. (2014 IL App (3d) 130530) (Peoria County Circuit Court Case No. 09 L 68; Appeal No. 3-13-0530). The case arose out of a motor vehicle accident in which the driver of a tractor-trailer made an illegal U-turn and decedent Crystal Hayward’s vehicle collided with the side of the trailer.

At the time of the accident, Defendant Vlado Petrovski was driving for his employer, Pella Carrier Services, Inc., and delivering a load brokered by C.H. Robinson. In Plaintiff’s Third Amended Complaint against Petrovski, Pella, C.H. Robinson and other defendants, Plaintiff alleged multiple counts of negligence and/or willful and wanton conduct. C.H. Robinson filed for summary judgment and the court found that the motor carrier (Pella) was operating as an independent contractor, and not an agent of C.H. Robinson. The court also found that C.H. Robinson did not negligently hire or supervise Pella or Petrovski. Plaintiff appealed.

In finding that Pella/Petrovski were not agents of C.H. Robinson, the trial court noted that the contract between Pella and C.H. Robinson clearly showed that Pella was an independent contractor. The court further noted that the only ‘control’ exercised by C.H. Robinson was its contractual requirement that the goods be picked up and delivered on time. According to the trial court, C.H. Robinson did not control the motor carrier or its driver’s means and methods of doing the work. C.H. Robinson did not hire the driver, maintain the right to discharge the driver, did not pay the driver, did not provide tools or equipment, and did not deduct taxes on behalf of the driver. The court further noted that the level of skill involved in completing the job was not significant. These factors led the trial court to find that Pella and Petrovski were not acting as agents of C.H. Robinson at the time of the accident.

On appeal, the plaintiff did not challenge the trial court’s finding that Pella was an independent contractor and not an agent of C.H. Robinson, but rather focused its appeal on the negligent hiring/retention/supervision claims. Plaintiff contended that there remained an issue of material fact as to whether C.H. Robinson negligently hired or supervised Pella. In arguing this, Plaintiff produced information that Pella was owned by an individual that also owned another motor carrier, Transpeed. Transpeed apparently lost its operating authority at some point prior to the subject accident due to unsatisfactory safety ratings. Plaintiff’s expert opined that because Pella had some connection to Transpeed (the same owner and some shared employees), that C.H. Robinson should have further investigated Pella beyond publicly-available information (such as operating authority, safety rating, and data available via the FMCSA website). Robinson responded that it was undisputed that Pella had valid operating authority and a satisfactory safety rating at the time of the accident, and therefore, there was no duty to further scrutinize Pella based on Transpeed’s inadequacies.

To succeed in a cause of action for negligently hiring an independent contractor, the plaintiff must show that C.H. Robinson hired Pella when C.H. Robinson knew or should have known that it was unfit for the job so as to create a danger of harm to third parties. In affirming summary judgment, the appellate court noted particular facts found in the records – that Pella had safely hauled 770 loads for C.H. Robinson without incident before the subject accident; that during the entire relationship between Pella and C.H. Robinson, Pella had maintained its federal licensing and had a satisfactory safety rating; that Petrovski had maintained a CDL for seven years prior to the accident and had never received any traffic tickets or moving violations; and the vehicle was in good condition with no equipment safety violations – indicating that Pella was not unfit.

Further, the court noted that it was unable to consider Plaintiff’s expert’s assertions that Transpeed had lost its license due to safety issues and that since Transpeed and Pella shared a common owner, that C.H. Robinson should have investigated Pella with heightened scrutiny. This is because the expert’s affidavit did not conform with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 191(a) which mandates that affidavits must attach certified copies of all documents upon which it relies. The expert’s affidavit indicated that he received information from the DOT pertaining to Transpeed’s safety issues, but did not attach the DOT information upon which he alleged relied. As such, the court would not consider the expert’s affidavit in regard to Transpeed.

In addition, Plaintiff’s expert explained the industry standard of care applicable to a freight broker in selecting a carrier. According to the court, the facts in evidence showed that C.H. Robinson complied with that standard of care by checking Pella’s safety records, both prior to hiring and annually, and that the safety information available to the public supported that Pella consistently maintained a satisfactory safety record. The court also noted Transpeed was a totally separate entity from Pella regardless of similar ownership and/or employees.

As such, the appellate court concluded that C.H. Robinson was not negligent in hiring Pella and did not have any reason to believe that Pella or its drivers had engaged or would engage in any unsafe practices when transporting freight pursuant to the C.H. Robinson-Pella contract. The trial court’s granting of summary judgment was affirmed.