Le v. Total Quality Logistics, LLC, Case No. 116,382

Decision Date16 May 2018
Docket NumberCase No. 116,382
Citation431 P.3d 366
Parties The T. LE, Plaintiff/Appellant, v. TOTAL QUALITY LOGISTICS, LLC, d/b/a TQL, Defendant/Appellee, and Arora Enterprise, Inc. and Gurinder Pal Singh, Defendants.
CourtUnited States State Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma. Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma

James F. Self, Jr., SELF & ASSOCIATES, INC., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

Dan S. Folluo, Randall E. Long, Michael D. Goss, RHODES, HIERONYMUS, JONES, TUCKER & GABLE, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Defendant/Appellee.


¶ 1 Plaintiff, The T. Le, appeals a decision of the district court granting summary judgment to transportation broker Total Quality Logistics, LLC (TQL) on the grounds that TQL was not vicariously liable for the acts of carrier Arora or its driver Gurinder Singh. On review, we affirm the decision of the district court.


¶ 2 The case stems from a road accident occurring on Interstate 40 near Mustang, Oklahoma. A semi-truck trailer driven by one Gurinder Singh, an employee of carrier Arora, struck the rear of a vehicle in which Plaintiff Le was a passenger, injuring Le. The truck was carrying a refrigerated load of strawberries destined for Wal-Mart. The strawberries were originally consigned to Wal-Mart by a company named Eclipse Berry Farms which was apparently the owner of the cargo. Eclipse Berry Farms had arranged transportation for the strawberries through "transportation broker" TQL. Le sued Singh and Arora for negligence. She also sued TQL on theories of agency, joint venture, negligent hiring and statutory employment.

¶ 3 TQL filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that some of Le's theories failed as a matter of law, and that there was no evidence of at least one required element in her other theories of liability. The district court held a hearing on the motion, and granted summary judgment to TQL. The court certified this matter for appeal pursuant to 12 O.S. § 994.


¶ 4 When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the district court considers factual matters but the ultimate decision is purely legal. Carmichael v. Beller , 1996 OK 48, ¶ 2, 914 P.2d 1051. Issues of law are reviewed pursuant to the de novo standard of review. Brown v. Nicholson , 1997 OK 32, n.1, 935 P.2d 319. De novo review involves a plenary, independent, and non-deferential examination of the district court's rulings of law. In re Estate of Bell-Levine , 2012 OK 112, ¶ 5, 293 P.3d 964. On review, we examine the pleadings and evidentiary materials submitted by the parties to determine whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact. Carmichael , 1996 OK 48 at ¶ 2, 914 P.2d 1051. If the moving party has not addressed all material facts, or if one or more of such facts is not supported by acceptable evidentiary material, summary judgment is not proper. Spirgis v. Circle K Stores, Inc. , 1987 OK CIV APP 45, 743 P.2d 682 (approved for publication by the Oklahoma Supreme Court).


¶ 5 The basic common law rule is that a person who performs work through an independent contractor is not liable for damages to third persons caused by the negligence of the contractor, excepting special circumstances that would place a duty on the hiring party. Hudgens v. Cook Indus., Inc. , 1973 OK 145, 521 P.2d 813 ; Bouziden v. Alfalfa Elec. Co-op., Inc ., 2000 OK 50, ¶ 12, 16 P.3d 450. Le argued at summary judgment that there is evidence of such special circumstances sufficient to create a jury question as to TQL's liability for Singh's and Arora's actions. Le brings 31 allegations of error, but these may be reduced to three basic theories of liability against TQL.

1. TQL is responsible for driver Singh's actions because it, not Arora, was the actual motor carrier, or because it exercised control over driver Singh's actions sufficient to make TQL liable as an employer or principal under a respondeat superior/agency theory.

2. TQL is responsible for driver Singh's actions because it had a duty to investigate Singh/Arora's safety and driving record to a greater degree than it did ("negligent hiring").

3. TQL is responsible for driver Singh's actions because it was in a joint venture relationship with Arora.


¶ 6 The essence of Le's first claim is that TQL is legally the "carrier" of the load of strawberries, not a freight broker, and is hence responsible for the acts of driver Singh on a respondeat superior basis. The centerpiece of Le's "carrier" argument is a series of statements by various courts to the effect that any entity that commits to deliver a load is a "carrier" pursuant to federal law.

¶ 7 Le argues that, because TQL committed to Eclipse Berry Farms to deliver the strawberries before hiring Arora, it is a motor carrier and, as a motor carrier, it is responsible for Singh's actions, even though it was not his nominal employer. Indeed, Le argues that any brokerage model in which the broker promises to arrange delivery of a load renders the broker a "motor carrier," and hence TQL is the employer or principal of the driver of every load for which it arranges shipment. The question of when a broker may become a motor carrier is substantially one of federal regulation.

A. The Carmack Amendment

¶ 8 The fundamental problem with Le's argument is that its legal roots come from cases involving a 1906 federal statute known as the Carmack Amendment, 49 U.S.C. § 14706 et seq . The Carmack Amendment is a federal law assigning liability for loss, damage, or injury to property transported in interstate commerce, and preempts state regulation of carrier liability in this area. Adams Express Co. v. Croninger , 226 U.S. 491, 505, 33 S.Ct. 148, 57 L.Ed. 314 (1913) ; Read-Rite Corp. v. Burlington Air Express, Ltd ., 186 F.3d 1190, 1196 (9th Cir. 1999). The Amendment places the responsibility for the loss or damage to such goods on carriers, but not brokers, pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 14706(a). Chubb Group of Ins. Companies v. H.A. Transp. Systems, Inc ., 243 F.Supp.2d 1064 (C.D.Cal. 2002). As a result, a great deal of case law involving the Carmack Amendment naturally centers on the question of whether a specific entity was a "carrier" or a "broker." We disagree that case law involving lost or damaged goods pursuant to the Carmack Amendment has any relevance to respondeat superior questions in Oklahoma.

¶ 9 Reported Oklahoma cases discuss the Carmack Amendment and associated case law only in this context of liability for lost or damaged freight .1 We find no Oklahoma authority for the proposition that a status of "carrier" assigned for the purpose of assigning liability for lost and damaged freight renders an entity a "motor carrier" for all purposes of federal transportation regulation, or state respondeat superior claims.

¶ 10 Turning to other states, an identical claim was discussed by a federal district court in the case of Kavulak v. Laimis Juodzevicius, A.V. Inc ., 994 F.Supp.2d 337 (W.D.N.Y. 2014). In Kavulak , plaintiff Kavulak was working as part of a bridge cleaning operation. Kavulak's dump truck was struck from behind by a truck operated by defendant A.V., Inc. Kavulak attempted to hold broker Transportation Solutions Group, LLC liable, alleging that the broker "was acting as a motor carrier under federal law, not a property broker, at the time of the accident and therefore is liable as such." Id . at 342.

¶ 11 The district court in Kavulak rejected the argument that the standards used to determine which entity was the "motor carrier" for the purposes of the Carmack Amendment had any relevance to respondeat superior liability for personal injury caused by the operation of the truck. The court found that "Plaintiff's argument that TSG would be liable if found to be a motor carrier under federal law is therefore meritless." Id . at 344. Kavulak further noted that the Carmack Amendment "does not create a private right of action to recover for personal injuries sustained by a motorist struck by a tractor-trailer driver."2

¶ 12 Similar principles are stated in McGinn v. JB Hunt Transport, Inc. , No. 10-cv-610-JPS, 2012 WL 124401, *3 (E.D.Wis. Jan. 17, 2012).3

[T]o expand Carmack Amendment preemption to cases in which a plaintiff seeks to hold a carrier liable, not for damage or loss of the goods, but rather for personal injuries allegedly caused by the carrier's negligence in the transport of those goods, would seem to be at odds with both the plain language of the statute and the purpose behind its enactment.

¶ 13 These decisions appear rational and properly related to the purpose of the Carmack Amendment, which is to give a shipper the "right to proceed against the initial carrier in a case where damage or loss occurred while the shipment was in the hands of a subsequent carrier" and preempt state laws to the contrary. Aaacon Auto Transp., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co ., 537 F.2d 648, 653 (2d Cir. 1976).

¶ 14 We further note that, even if TQL, which owns no trucks and employs no driver or owner-operators, did somehow become a "motor carrier," it still hired another motor carrier (Arora) to actually move the load. At least one case, Harris v. Velichkov , 860 F.Supp.2d 970, 979–80 (D. Neb. 2012), indicates that if a motor carrier hires a second motor carrier to actually move the freight in question, it is the second carrier that is liable for the driver's actions. We find that case law determining what entity is a "carrier" for the purpose of assigning liability for lost or damaged freight has, however, no relevance to the question of respondeat superior liability before us, and reject, as matter of law, Le's argument that TQL is a "motor carrier" for the purposes of liability for personal injuries.

B. Federal Statutory Employee Doctrines

¶ 15 Le's counsel also argued during the hearing of the summary judgment motion that federal law makes any entity that hires an independent contractor to haul freight "responsible for the...

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