Working in the trucking and shipping industry can be a rough occupation. It often involves tight deadlines, thousands of miles of pavement, and long hours – not to mention navigating America’s roads and interstates, which claimed over 34,000 lives in 2012 alone. As you might imagine, safety on the road is a large concern for the industry, and the public in general, prompting the Federal Government to put into place a number of regulations addressing those concerns.
These regulations are enforced by the Federal Motor Vehicle Carrier Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation. They cover a wide range of issues within the trucking industry, including maximum allotted driving time, licensing requirements, drug and alcohol prohibitions and procedures for testing, and a number of other topics related to safe trucking practices. The violation of many of these regulations could result in civil penalties, such as heavy fines or loss of license.
Despite these regulations, and the consequences that could arise if they are violated, many commercial truck drivers experience pressure from their employers to engage in activity prohibited under the regulations. As mentioned above, the commercial trucking industry constantly faces deadlines for shipping that are difficult to meet. For employers, missing a deadline may mean economic losses, and so they often push their drivers to meet those deadlines by any necessary means. This places drivers in a precarious situation: on the one hand, if they violate the regulations to meet a deadline, their employer might be pleased, but they run the risk of fines or losing their licenses; on the other, if they adhere to the regulations, but don’t make their deadline, they may face discipline or even termination from their employers.
So can an employer fire a truck driver for refusing to violate federal regulations? Well, that question has not exactly been answered conclusively. In the context of court decisions, there’s good news and bad news. First the bad news: One case, coming from the Federal District Court in the Western District of Kentucky, states that yes, an employer can terminate an employee for refusing to violate driving regulations. In that case, Jones v. Metal Management Nashville, LLC, 2009 WL 197427 (W.D.Ky 2009), the court dismissed an action claiming wrongful discharge in violation of public policy for a truck driver who was terminated for refusing to violate federal regulations.
In its opinion, the District Court dismissed the claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy outright, stating explicitly that federal regulations do not fall within the public policy exception to the at-will doctrine. Id. at *3. The District Court based its holding on Shrout v. The TFE Group, 161 S.W.3d 351 (Ky. App. 2005). In Shrout, the Court of Appeals does state that federal regulations cannot be the basis for discharge in violation of public policy claim. 161 S.W.3d at 355. The Shrout Court based its decision on two reasons: (1) that KRS § 446.070, the statute underpinning a wrongful discharge claim, applies only to Kentucky statutes or constitutional provisions; and (2) the public policy being referenced must be defined by statute and must be “directed at providing statutory protection for the worker in his employment situation. Id. at 355.
While that case may look discouraging for drivers worried about following regulations and maintaining job security, there is still the good news mentioned before. First, this is only one opinion held by a District Court, so it holds little in the way of precedential value, meaning that Kentucky courts and higher courts don’t have to follow the legal conclusions of the opinion. Second, the reasoning of the Western District appears to be flawed.
To begin with, the District Court’s reliance on the Shrout case may be flawed. The facts in Shrout did not stem from an employee’s refusal to violate a law, but rather a right perceived by the plaintiff to offer protection to employees against deficient drug testing procedures. However, this situation is distinguishable from a driver refusing to violate trucking regulations, where an acquiescence to the demands of the employer could result in civil penalties being assessed against him.
There are a number of other reasons for why the District Court’s decision in Jones is not legally sound, but those reasons are fairly complex, and aren’t really appropriate for this article of this length. It is enough for the purposes of this entry to simply note that this one decision is not, by itself, controlling on whether an employer can fire its driver for refusing to violate driving regulations.
It should also be noted that drivers have some protection under federal law from this sort of retaliation. Drivers who have been discharged for refusing to violate regulations can pursue administrative claims against their employers, as outlined in 49 USC § 31105. Successful claims could allow a driver terminated for this reason to recover compensatory damages, including backpay with interest, and compensation for any special damages sustained as a result, including litigation costs, expert witness fees, and reasonable attorney fees. Additionally, a successful claimant could be reinstated to his or her former position, and may be able to recover up to $250,000.00 in punitive damages. A driver discharged under these circumstances has 180 days from the date of his or her termination to file such a claim.
So, while the law has not been conclusively decided about the legal rights of drivers who have been terminated for refusing to violate trucking regulations, there are still protections available for drivers who find themselves in this situation. If you feel you have been discharged under these circumstances, you should contact an attorney to learn about the options you have available to you.