Tired Truckers: How the Tracy Morgan Crash is a Sign of a Bigger Problem

posted by Chris Wilms  |  Jun 11, 2014 07:09 AM [EST]  |  applies to North Carolina

Driving while tired can be just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated, and in an industry that pushes the limits on production, tired truck drivers are often the result. The recent tractor trailer accident that injured Tracy Morgan involved a tired truck driver who was dozing in and out, making him unable to see the traffic slowing down ahead of him. (http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/man-accused-tracy-morgan-crash-heads-court/story?id=24052939). The truck hit Tracy Morgan’s limo van, injured him and three others, and killed one. Because it is so dangerous to have tired truckers on the road, there are laws to keep it from happening. 49 CFR 395 provides extensive regulations on how long truck drivers are allowed to work on and off the road. (http://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/49/part-395). While this author can’t speak to the motivations of the particular driver in this case, often it is the case that the folks in charge of these truck drivers push the boundaries on these regulations, and because there is often another truck driver waiting in line to take a driver’s place, it places truck drivers in a precarious position, namely whether to feed their family and risk an accident, or do what is lawful and potentially starve.

Just because there is a cause of action prohibiting conduct, it does not necessarily mean the decision is any easier.  However, the issue of whether a truck driver can refuse to violate the law and maintain a cause of action in court when they are fired for refusing has been addressed by North Carolina Courts under the “Wrongful Discharge in Violation of Public Policy” tort originally established in the famous Sides v. Duke University case, but expounded upon in Coman v. Thomas Manufacturing with respect to its application to truck driver sleeping regulations.

“Ordinarily, an employee without a definite term of employment is an employee at will and may be discharged without reason.” Coman v. Thomas Mfg. Co., Inc., 325 N.C. 172, 175, 381 S.E.2d 445, 446 (1989) (citing Still v. Lance, 279 N.C. 254, 182 S.E.2d 403 (1971). “However, the employee-at-will rule is subject to certain exceptions. Statutes may proscribe the discharge of an at-will employee in retaliation for certain protected activities, e.g., filing workers' compensation claims, N.C.G.S. § 97-6.1 (1985); engaging in labor disputes, N.C.G.S. § 95-83 (1985); filing Occupational Safety and Health Act claims, N.C.G.S. § 95-130(8) (1985).”  Id. “[W]hile there may be a right to terminate a contract at will for no reason, or for an arbitrary or irrational reason, there can be no right to terminate such a contract for an unlawful reason or purpose that contravenes public policy. A different interpretation would encourage and sanction lawlessness, which law by its very nature is designed to discourage and prevent. Id. (citing Sides v. Duke University, 74 N.C.App at 342, 328 S.E.2d at 826 (1985).

“[It] is the public policy in this jurisdiction that the safety of persons and property on or near the public highways be protected. Highway safety is one of the paramount concerns of both this state and the nation… Actions committed against the safety of the traveling public are contrary to this established public policy.” Coman, 325 N.C. at 176, 381 S.E.2d at 447-48. The state public policy implications in instances that involve overworked truckers is compelling. Id. “Our legislature has enacted numerous statutes regulating almost every aspect of transportation and travel on the highways in an effort to promote safety.” Id.  The actions of an employer who, for example, forces an employee to falsify his time recordation to appear to have stayed within the maximum amount of drivable hours, impair and violate this public policy. See id. Circumstances like this leave the employee with the choice of either violating that public policy and risking imprisonment, or complying with the public policy and being fired from his employment. Id. “Where the public policy providing for the safety of the traveling public is involved, [the North Carolina Supreme Court has found that] it is in the best interest of the state on behalf of its citizens to encourage employees to refrain from violating that public policy at the demand of their employers. Providing employees with a remedy should they be discharged for refusing to violate this public policy supplies that encouragement.” Id.

            One should not be so quick to judge a tired truck driver who is obeying orders.  The question of balancing one’s responsibility to the community at large vs. the responsibility of providing for one’s family is an ethical quagmire beyond the scope of this article.  However, where an employee does choose to refuse to disobey mandates to violate trucking regulations put in place for the safety of our citizens, there is a cause of action in North Carolina for wrongful discharge.  North Carolina has incorporated the federal regulations into its own laws (See Coman v. Thomas Mfg. for an analysis of exactly how that has been done), with the intent of establishing safety measures for citizens against the dangers of exhausted truckers navigating its roadways.  While so much of employment law prevents unfair results for employees in this state, our Courts have pretty clearly concluded that, at least with respect to this issue, employees do have some rights above and beyond that of “at will” employment.

posted by Chris Wilms  |  Jun 11, 2014 07:09 AM [EST]  |  applies to North Carolina

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