Today the United States Supreme Court is conferencing to determine whether to grant certiorari in a case with significant ramifications for trucking litigation in state courts. At issue in C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. v. Miller (No. 19-15981) is whether the safety exception in the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA) applies to a common law claim against a freight broker for negligent selection of a motor carrier transporting goods in interstate commerce. If the exception does not apply, the FAAAA pre-empts such claims. A split decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that state common law claims fell within the exception because a state could choose to regulate safety through common law tort claims.

This case arose from a collision between a tractor trailer and a passenger vehicle in Nevada. The accident severely injured the plaintiff, who sued the driver, motor carrier, freight broker (Robinson), and Costco (which hired Robinson) in the federal district court of Nevada. The plaintiff settled with each of the parties except Robinson. Robinson moved for summary judgment on the basis that the FAAAA pre-empted the plaintiff’s common law negligence claim. The trial court granted the motion, reasoning that the safety exception applied only to state regulations, not to common law theories of liability. As noted above, the Ninth Circuit reversed. Robinson filed a petition for writ of certiorari with SCOTUS in April. The Court requested briefing and scheduled the matter for conference today.

Robinson argues that the Ninth Circuit misinterpreted the FAAAA. Enacted in 1994, the FAAAA deregulated motor carriers and pre-empted states from regulating rates, routes, and services of carriers and brokers. This pre-emption provision mirrored a provision in the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (ADA). The FAAAA, however, contains an exception that allows states to exercise regulatory authority with respect to motor vehicle safety. Robinson contends that a common law claims for private damages does not constitute either the exercise of state administrative or regulatory authority or a safety regulation “with respect” to motor vehicles. In support of the argument, Robinson cites SCOTUS authority to the effect that preserving the state’s police power over safety refers to the power to enact legislation for the public good, which includes delegation of that power to administrative agencies and municipalities. The common law of torts, on the other hand, “imposes general duties of care, not specific regulatory duties characteristic of statutes and regulations. And it is not enforced by state or local officials, but rather by private parties and their lawyers . . .” As Robinson points out, the purpose of the common law of torts is to compensate private parties for injuries caused by another who breaches a legal duty, not to regulate anything in particular. Even if the safety exception does not apply to common law claims, Robinson reasons, it does not cover the services of freight brokers who have nothing to do with the actual operation of motor vehicles.

As Robinson points out in its petition, SCOTUS has reversed the Ninth Circuit in the past for failing to give pre-emptive effect to both the ADA and FAAAA. We’ll soon find out if they are thinking about doing it again.

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