The House of Representatives approved an amendment to the recently passed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) re-authorization bill that establishes national standards for shippers and intermediaries to follow when hiring truckers to move freight.
The amendment, which passed the House by a 212-191 margin, would deem a motor carrier to be safe if it is properly licensed, has adequate insurance, and has a better than "unsatisfactory" rating from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a sub-agency of the Department of Transportation that oversees the safety of the nation's trucks and buses. The amendment, one of 250 considered for inclusion in the five-year FAA reform bill, was co-sponsored by Reps. Jimmy Duncan (R-Tenn.) and Jason Lewis (R-Minn.).
In 2015, Duncan sponsored a similar amendment that was included in the transport-funding legislation that became known as the "FAST" Act. The language passed the House and Senate, but was dropped from the reconciled version that President Barack Obama signed into law in late 2015.
The Senate is expected to take up its version of FAA reform legislation in late May or early June. The Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA), the broker trade group that led the industry fight for the amendment in 2015 and 2018, will try to get a similar measure embedded in the main text of the Senate version rather than as an amendment, the hope being that such language, if contained in the body of the main document, would be harder to drop during reconciliation between House and Senate conferees.
Supporters of the amendment said it would clarify and standardize the practices of hiring a motor carrier and end the current patchwork of state and local standards that unfairly exposes freight brokers and shippers to potential liability after an accident. Many in the industry believe the FMCSA has abrogated its obligation to set clear standards for determining which carriers are safe and unsafe to operate.
The presence of an overarching federal standard would also dilute plaintiffs' bar's strategy of suing brokers in state court over their roles in selecting carriers involved in accidents while hauling the plaintiffs' freight, industry groups have said. Trial lawyers have succeeded in recent years in persuading juries that carriers or drivers were either in a broker's employ at the time of an accident or that brokers were negligent in vetting the carrier's safety record.
Some juries have returned what have become known as "nuclear" verdicts in the millions of dollars. These verdicts have become the bane of carriers, shippers, and brokers alike, and were a key reason that long-time truck insurers like AIG and Zurich exited the market.
Not surprisingly, trial lawyers are opposed to the measure, as are highway safety advocates. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) supports the measure, while the American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents mostly large fleets, has remained neutral, according to Chris Burroughs, a TIA lobbyist.
The FAA reform bill that passed the House also contains language to federally pre-empt state regulations requiring truck drivers operating in interstate commerce to be paid for meal and rest breaks.