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Trucking companies exposed to new liability risk after FMCSA preemption

Photo credit: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

Not following California’s meal and rest break laws could leave motor carriers that opt to judiciously observe the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) recent decision open to added liability risk in pending or future civil lawsuits, according to legal experts.

Those new risks were triggered by a petition filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in late December by the Teamsters union. The Teamsters want the court to reverse the federal agency’s ruling, claiming that it harms union-represented drivers who work for companies that have been providing paid meal periods and rest breaks under California law.

Federal hours of service (HOS) regulations require drivers take a 30-minute rest break after eight hours, and prohibit drivers from operating a truck if a driver feels too tired to drive safely. California’s meal and rest break laws require drivers be given a 30-minute meal break every five hours and an additional 10-minute rest break every four hours.

The FMCSA ruled in favor of petitions filed last year by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and others, asserting that having a uniform rule addressing rest breaks increases safety.

However, “the suggestion that California’s meal and rest break rules negatively impact highway safety is ludicrous,” the Teamsters countered in response to the decision.

“The idea that providing a 10-minute rest break after four hours and a 30-minute meal break after five hours somehow makes the roads less safe is beyond comprehension. This is simply a giveaway to the trucking industry at the expense of driver safety.”

Depending on the outcome of The Teamsters’ challenge, carriers could risk liability in civil lawsuits, contends Prasad Sharma, a partner with the Washington, DC-based law firm Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary, which specializes in transportation issues.

“FMCSA’s preemption determination is certainly a welcome development and achieves a result the industry has long sought,” Sharma told FreightWaves. “However, carriers should understand that, until the challenge to the FMCSA determination is resolved, there is some risk for carriers that elect to stop complying with California’s meal and rest break laws. If the FMCSA decision is vacated, those carriers risk accruing liability for violations during the gap period between reliance on FMCSA’s determination and a court’s reversal.”

Sharma said carriers have had to design driver routes and schedules to allow drivers to take meal and rest breaks as prescribed by California law, “which cuts into the amount of productive work time they otherwise would have had under the federal HOS rules.”

The ATA contends that because the Ninth Circuit has never ruled on whether the state’s meal and rest break requirements are preempted under the federal statute on which FMCSA’s decision was based, “we are confident that the Ninth Circuit will not second-guess a decision that Congress expressly delegated to the agency with responsibility for, and expertise in, [commercial motor vehicle] safety nationwide,” the association told FreightWaves in a statement.

The group noted that the Ninth Circuit did rule previously that the meal and rest break requirements are not preempted, but it was under a statute preempting state laws relating to a motor carrier’s prices, routes, or services, and not under FMCSA’s safety mandate.

ATA also pointed out that while California’s regulations have already produced a number of class action lawsuits by truckers claiming their company has not allowed them to take their 30-minute break after five hours, “it is our belief those suits are now moot” because of the FMCSA’s ruling.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents independent truckers, has been “open to a more limited and balanced approach” than ATA in addressing the issue, and asserted that FMCSA’s preemption “further complicates an already complex issue,” Todd Spencer, the association’s president, said in statement.

“We agree with many other industry stakeholders that certain federal statutes need to be reviewed, but any changes should be thoroughly vetted to make sure it’s done right. We think FMCSA’s decision may generate legal challenges and it remains to be seen how state lawmakers in California respond to a federal preemption that effectively guts state labor laws designed to protect employee truck drivers,” Spencer said.

Despite its jurisdictional focus on safety, the FMCSA in its decision highlighted comments from carriers that were concerned about operational and financial implications of the California law as well.

FedEx (FDX) explained, for example, that in order to take off-duty breaks, “drivers must slow down, exit the roadway, find a safe and suitable location to park and secure their vehicles, and then exit the vehicle.” The company therefore has to build into the drivers’ routes up to 90 minutes of additional time.

In addition, theNational Retail Federation stated that one of its members reported its California drivers have seen a 3 percent reduction in productivity compared to its drivers in other states, costing the company $1.5 million annually.

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John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.
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