Employer Fundamentals: Understanding Employment Law
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Employer Fundamentals: Understanding Employment Law

As a business owner, keeping informed about the finer points of employment law is important. If you're getting ready to hire your first employees, you need to be sure that you understand exactly what you can and cannot do. Don't risk getting yourself into legal trouble by asking the wrong question at the interview or making an off-hand comment that's considered legally unacceptable. I created this site to give you the basics of employment law expectations. I hope that the information here helps you to understand what you should and shouldn't do as you're interviewing and hiring your first staff members.

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Employer Fundamentals: Understanding Employment Law

Understanding Vicarious Liability In Trucking Accidents

Irene Robertson

Each year, about 5,000 people die in accidents involving commercial trucks. When the truck driver is responsible for the accident, the driver's employer is generally held liable for damages caused by the driver because of a legal doctrine called "vicarious liability." When vicarious liability arises, federal law treats the trucking industry differently than most other industries. Here are the basics.

What Is Vicarious Liability?

"Vicarious liability" is a legal principle that removes the liability from the person who actually caused the accident and places it onto another person or business. This is done because a certain relationship, like parent-child or employer-employee, exists between the person who actually caused the accident and the party held liable for it. For example, when an employee causes an accident while "on the clock," then the employer is responsible for the damages. 

When Is an Employer Not Responsible for an Employee's Actions?

In most industries, including the trucking industry before recent legislation, an employer could escape liability for an accident caused by someone working for the employer if no employer-employee relationship exists. This happens when the person hired is not classified as an employee, but as an independent contractor. The differences between an employee and an independent contractor differ by state and agency, but generally speaking, the more control that the employer has over the hired hand, the more likely that an employer-employee relationship exists. How much "control" the employer has can be determined by many factors, like:

  • If the employer or the worker supplies the equipment
  • If the employer offers benefits or withholds taxes
  • How regularly the employer pays the worker
  • If industry standards or norms dictate how employers classify workers

Vicarious liability generally applies only when the worker is an employee. When an independent contractor causes an accident while doing work for the employer, the contractor will likely be held liable. 

How Is the Trucking Industry Different Than Other Industries When Independent Contractors Are Involved?

Historically, if a trucker classified as an independent contractor caused an accident while on the job, then the trucker would be held liable. Employers distance themselves from the employer-employee relationship by leasing tractors to drivers (instead of providing tractors and, thus, exercising control) or giving the driver a "permit" instead of an employment contract.

Today, federal law prohibits employers from escaping liability for an accident caused by one of its drivers on the basis that the driver is an independent contractor and not an employee. For more information, contact a lawyer, like Hardee and Hardee LLP.


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