Friday, February 12, 2016

Spirit of the law vs. Letter of the law

I read court cases involving truckers all week. It’s part of the job. Everything from noncompliant carriers busted by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General to lost wages due to misclassification.  

Earlier this week I received an email from a lawyer giving me a heads up about a case involving a truck driver who was fired for refusing to accept an overweight load. The complainant claims that it was illegal for him to haul the load. Under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), the complainant was protected from repercussions for what is essentially coercion to violate regulations. He won the case and was awarded back pay, mental pain damages, attorney fees, and $50,000 in punitive damages. In addition, the carrier was ordered to put him back to work.

Sounds like a slam dunk case against a carrier committing coercion. But then I read the full court document.

Just three days into his employment with the carrier, complainant violated company policy by not securing a load. About a month later, he committed another violation with unusually high idle time (mind you, he’s a driver for a company that manages its fleet through Qualcomm). Approximately a month after that, he again failed to secure a load and failed to deliver his assigned load. Complainant left his assigned tractor-trailer unsecured while getting a tooth pulled. Subsequently, the truck and trailer were towed at the company’s expense.

About a week after that last incident, complainant was given a “serious warning.” The driver was scheduled to deliver some freight to Mexico. Overnighting of bills was necessary to complete the trip. According to court documents, the driver did not feel he was responsible for doing that. Although the company resolved the issue, the driver’s lack of urgency could have cost the company $60,000-$70,000 in lost produce freight.

That brings us to the incident that got the legal ball rolling. About two weeks after the last incident, complainant was assigned to pick up beer at a Miller/Coors facility in Colorado. Gross weight of the load came to 80,040 pounds. The driver refused to haul the overweight load. However, the fleet manager advised the trucker that under an APU weight exemption, he could legally deliver the beer. According to one witness, the driver did not understand the exemption and continued to refuse the load.

To the driver’s credit, he was correct about the overweight load. Even after adjusting the sliding tandem axles, steering axle weight was at 12,080 pounds, tractor tandem axle at 34,840 pounds, and tractor tandem axles at 33,120 pounds. Max weight for steering axle is 12,000 pounds, whereas the max weight for tandem axles is 34,000 pounds.

Despite the back and forth between driver and fleet manager, the company not only reassigned the trucker, but also provided him with layover pay while seeking another load. Here’s the thing, and this is important: He was not reprimanded for refusing the overweight load.

Just a few days later, the complainant was dispatched to pick up a load for Coca-Cola. Long story short, the driver overslept and the load was delivered more than 6.5 hours late.  

The driver was ordered to return to the terminal where he was met by human resources and fired. According to court documents and confirmed by an HR rep at the company, the man was fired for his body of work, or lack thereof. Additionally, the HR rep says the overweight load was not a factor. It was the six other screw-ups.

So how in Sam Hill did the driver win this case?

During the meeting at the terminal, HR provided the driver with documents explaining why he was being terminated. In the comments sections, it was noted that the driver had “Seven notable issues since 3/24 hire date.” Among those issues was “Refused load.”

Because the overweight load incident was merely mentioned in the termination documents, the court ruled that it was a factor in the driver losing his job, which is a direct violation of STAA. A company rep confirmed to Land Line that the overweight load was never a factor. Rather, it was the myriad of violations that occurred around it. The rep pointed out that the driver was never punished for the overweight load refusal.

The spirit of STAA is to protect drivers from coercion. According to the company, the driver was never fired as a result of the load refusal. However, the letter of the law draws attention to the verbiage of the termination documents, which brings us to where we are now.

This is a classic case of letter of the law vs. spirit of the law. And the letter won.