4-26-2011; Major Appellate ruling for the Illinois trucking industry--motor carrier broker had “right to control” truck driver's work, as required to support finding of agency relationship...

In Sperl v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., 2011 WL 1346918 (Ill.App. 3d Dist.), Plaintiffs brought a wrongful death and personal injury actions against a company that brokered shipments being transported by a semi-tractor driver who admitted she was negligent in causing a multi-vehicle collision and two deaths. The 12th Judicial Circuit Court, Will County, entered judgment on a jury verdict for Plaintiffs and denied Defendant's motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) and for new trial. Defendant appealed to the Third District, but the judgment of the trial court was affirmed.


Plaintiffs filed a complaint against Defendant C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., a/k/a C.H. Robinson Company (CHR) for wrongful death and personal injuries sustained due to DeAn Henry's (Henry) negligent operation of a tractor-trailer. The jury concluded CHR was vicariously liable based on an agency theory and entered judgment in favor of Plaintiffs in the amount of $23,775,000.


On the morning of April 1, 2004, Henry was driving a tractor-trailer containing a load of potatoes from Idaho to CHR's warehouse in Bolingbrook, Illinois. As she approached Plainfield, traveling on Interstate 55, she noticed the vehicles ahead of her were not moving. Henry was unable to stop her truck and ran over several vehicles, causing a multiple-car accident. Two individuals died in the collision and another sustained serious injuries. Henry owned the tractor she was driving and leased it to Dragonfly, a motor carrier. On that day, Henry was delivering a load for CHR.


Plaintiffs sued Henry, Dragonfly and CHR for wrongful death and personal injuries sustained as a result of Henry's negligence. Henry and Dragonfly admitted liability. CHR denied liability and sought contribution from Henry and Dragonfly.


At trial, the evidence revealed CHR was a logistics company that provided a variety of transportation-related services. It was a federally licensed freight broker. At the time of the accident, it was not a licensed motor carrier. CHR did not own tractor-trailers, nor did it employ drivers. Instead, CHR sold its services to customers or shippers needing to transport goods and then contracts with carriers to provide transportation for its customers. In short, CHR argued Henry was simply an independent contractor and it could not be held vicariously liable for her actions or negligence. The Third District disagreed and found there was a principal-agent relationship between CHR and Henry.


The Third District highlighted certain facts to determine there was a principal-agency relationship between CHR and Henry. First, the Court noted CHR provided Henry with certain instructions for handling freight, such as having a refrigerated trailer of a specific length. If the freight did not sustain a certain temperature, Henry was to contact CHR immediately. CHR also issued special instructions requiring Henry to pick up the freight at a specified time, make daily check calls, and stay in constant communication with CHR dispatchers.


Second, CHR enforced its instructions with a series of fines. There was testimony fines were imposed as incentives to drivers to get the load delivered on time. The Third District Appellate Court reasoned the instructions, fines and other factors flowing from CHR’s relationship with Henry were indicia of a principal-agent relationship warranting a jury finding of vicarious liability against CHR.


We want our readers, especially those involved in hauling freight, to understand it is extremely difficult to protect yourselves from vicarious liability by entering into an agreement with so-called independent contractors. The Third District’s Decision highlights the fact if your company/firm provides instructions and guidelines to independent contractor drivers, and said guidelines are enforced with fines (or, in the alternate, you provide incentives for timely delivery) you will not be able to escape liability by offering up a driver’s “independent contractor” status.


This article was researched and written by Joseph D’Amato, J.D. If you have questions or comments, please email them to jdamato@keefe-law.com.