Summer is just around the corner, and this season is usually the busiest time of year for U-Haul and other do-it-yourself moving companies. A 26-foot, fully loaded, U-Haul box truck weighs over 30,000 pounds. Operators normally need a commercial license to drive such massive vehicles. Yet anyone with a valid credit card and (possibly) a valid drivers’ license can drive away in one of these trucks.
Many U-Haul operators aren’t just inexperienced. They’re also fatigued from long hours of loading boxes and distracted by GPS navigation screens. As a result, the risk of a serious collision is quite high.
Normally, a Philadelphia car accident lawyer can use the negligent entrustment doctrine to take legal action against the U-Haul truck’s owner, instead of the driver. However, due to an obscure federal law called the Graves Amendment, these victims have limited options. Fortunately, the Graves Amendment has some holes which are almost big enough to drive a truck through.
Vicarious liability is important to establish in U-Haul crash claims. Most of these drivers have little or no insurance, and most people are effective judgement-proof in civil court.
What is the Graves Amendment?
In 2005, lawmakers were debating the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, a large transportation bill which included lots of money for highway renovations. Therefore, lawmakers were anxious to pass it. Congressman Sam Graves (D-MO) saw an opportunity to add a policy rider to the bill.
A little background. In the late 1990s, car accident victims in several states obtained large verdicts against Enterprise and several other vehicle rental companies which rented vehicles to incompetent operators who caused crashes. That’s the essence of the negligent entrustment doctrine.
Rather than changing the way they conduct business and screening people more carefully, these companies threatened to cease operations in states, including Missouri and Pennsylvania, with victim-friendly negligent entrustment laws.
Loopholes in 49 U.S. Code § 30106
So, just as the House of Representatives was about to vote on the FAST Act, Rep. Graves proposed the amendment which bears his name. Like most policy riders, there is almost no legislative history, like committee hearings, in support of the Graves Amendment. Additionally, the final amendment is very poorly drafted. These two things make it easier for a Philadelphia personal injury attorney to get around the Graves Amendment.
Negligent entrustment immunity only applies if the following things are true. Normally, the rental transaction doesn’t meet these conditions.
Not Otherwise Negligent
Victims cannot sue U-Haul or other vehicle owners if the owner or agent was not otherwise negligent during the transaction.
Drivers’ license verification is usually the major issue in this area. In the early 2000s, most lessors (people or entities who lease trucks) used visual inspections to verify drivers’ licenses. There was no effective way to tell if the license was suspended, fraudulent, or otherwise invalid.
Things are different today. Such technology is available and accessible. In fact, it’s arguably now the industry standard to electronically verify drivers’ licenses. Violating an industry standard is evidence of negligence.
Trade or Business Requirement
Furthermore, the lessor must be in the “trade or business” of renting motor vehicles. Rep. Graves obviously thought that language was broad enough to cover all lessors, even small mom-and-pop agencies. But that might not be the case.
The Graves Amendment does not define this phrase. The Uniform Commercial Code defines “merchant,” which is a similar concept. A merchant is someone who deals in items of a particular kind or someone who has special knowledge about a product. Neither of these descriptions apply to most lessors.
Most grocery stores also sell medicine and medical devices. But that fact doesn’t make them drugstores. Likewise, many lessors are moving supply companies which happen to rent a few trucks. That fact doesn’t mean they are in the “trade or business” of renting trucks. That’s just one part of their business.
Furthermore, most lessors do not have any specialized knowledge about the trucks they rent. They can tell you how to start the engine, but they don’t know how much horsepower the engine has.
Negligent Entrustment Elements
Bypassing the Graves Amendment simply gives these victims the right to sue the company. Obtaining fair compensation is another matter.
Victims must still establish driver incompetency by a preponderance of the evidence, or more likely than not. Evidence of incompetency includes:
- Safety-suspended drivers’ license,
- Prior safety suspensions,
- A poor driving record which includes at-fault collisions,
- A poor driving record which includes multiple traffic violations, and
- Inexperience driving large vehicles.
If there is any evidence that the driver was incompetent, U-Haul is normally willing to make a deal. The company would like to avoid the risk and publicity of a trial if at all possible.
Damages in car crash cases usually include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. Additional punitive damages are also available, in some extreme cases.