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Commercial Truck Driver Has Duty To Inspect Cargo Loaded By Shipper

If a shipper negligently loads a trailer with cargo, is the shipper liable to a commercial truck driver injured as a result of the shipper's failure to properly secure the load? The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations explains, in part, that after cargo is loaded, a commercial driver has a duty to inspect, properly distribute, and secure it:

(a) General. A driver may not operate a commercial motor vehicle and a motor carrier may not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle unless-

(1) The commercial motor vehicle's cargo is properly distributed and adequately secured ....

(a) Drivers of trucks and truck tractors. Except as provided in paragraph (b)(4) of this section, the driver of a truck or truck tractor must-

(1) Assure himself/herself that the provisions of paragraph (a) of this section have been complied with before he/she drives that commercial motor vehicle;

49 C.F.R. § 392.9 (Emphasis added).

The seminal case addressing this issue is United States v. Savage Truck Line, Inc., 209 F.2d 442 (4th Cir. 1953), where the Fourth Circuit held that:

[t]he primary duty as to safe loading of property is ... upon the carrier. When the shipper assumes the responsibility of loading, the general rule is that he becomes liable for the defects which are latent and concealed and cannot be discerned by ordinary observation by the agents of the carrier; but if the improper loading is apparent, the carrier will be liable notwithstanding the negligence of the shipper.

A majority of jurisdictions have adopted this rule and clearly outline what duties a shipper owes to a motor carrier, however, courts are not restricted to the analysis in Savage.

One recent case, Patton v. Nissan North America, Inc., 143 F. Supp. 3d 468 (S.D. Miss. 2015), addressed this issue, analyzing the relevant Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and general state court principles of negligence. The key facts of the Patton case are as follows:

(1) The driver, Patton, picked up a pre-loaded trailer from Nissan's plant in Mississippi;

(2) Patton was concerned about whether Nissan had properly loaded and secured the cargo, but drove off without any taking any action to inspect or secure the load himself.

(3) Patton admitted that he assumed Nissan had properly secured the load and he did not notice anything unusual about the way the load was secured.

(4) There was no contract or other agreement between Nissan and the motor carrier that would indicate the shipper undertook a duty to properly secure or load the cargo.

While acknowledging the influence of the Savage decision, the District Court primarily relied on the basic text of 49 C.F.R. § 392.9 to conclude that a commercial driver has a duty to inspect their cargo before driving. As cited by the Court, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Guidance and Mississippi Professional Driver's Manual both underscore that it is the driver's duty, rather than the shipper's duty, to inspect and secure cargo after loading. Because there was no evidence that Nissan had negligently secured the cargo and both parties incorporated the requirements of 49 C.F.R. § 392.9 into their shipping agreement, the Court granted the shipper's motion for summary judgment against the commercial truck driver.

Whether relying on Savage and its progeny or the basic rules set forth in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, it is important that motor carriers and drivers inspect cargo loaded by a shipper to ensure that it is properly distributed and secured before each trip. Failure to do so could expose a motor carrier to liability or effectively prevent any action against a shipper who merely places the cargo on a trailer for shipment.

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