Transportation Law Alert: Motor Carrier Owed No Duty to Propane Co. Under FMCSRs for Injury Arising Out Of Unloading Cargo

In Amerigas, Inc. v. Landstar Ranger, Inc. (No. SCVSS131877, filed 10/24/2014) the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, held a motor carrier was not required to indemnify a propane company because the motor carrier did not owe it a duty of care while propane tanks were being unloaded. Landstar Ranger, Inc. (“Landstar”) hired Steven King (“King”) to transport a load of propane tanks. King passed a proficiency test for transportation and loading of cargo administered by Landstar. King then drove a large load of propane tanks on his trailer, and arrived at the facility of Plaintiff, AmeriGas Propane, L.P. (“Amerigas”). Amerigas’ employee, David Jones, began unloading empty propane tanks from King’s flatbed trailer. One of the propane tanks fell and struck King during the unloading process.

King and his wife filed suit against Amerigas and Landstar for personal injuries. Amerigas settled the dispute with the Kings and cross-complained against Landstar for equitable indemnification and contribution. Amerigas’ claims proceeded through a bench trial which resulted in a ruling in favor of Landstar. The Court concluded Amerigas did not sustain any recoverable loss or damages, and Landstar could not be held liable for violating any Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (“FMCSRs”).

Amerigas appealed on the grounds the trial court erred in finding Landstar did not owe a duty to Amerigas, and that Landstar’s violations of the FMCSRs were the proximate cause of the injuries suffered by King. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court, holding substantial evidence existed to support the trial court’s findings.

The Court of Appeal discussed each of the FMCSRs, which were purportedly violated by Landstar, and held they were all inapplicable because the regulations do not pertain to the unloading of cargo. They strictly apply to loading of cargo so it can be moved safely during transport on public highways. Thus, the trial court properly determined Landstar owed no duty to Amerigas as a matter of law.

The Court of Appeal further held there was substantial evidence to support the trial court’s determination that, even assuming Landstar violated the FMCSRs, such violations were not substantial factors in causing King’s injury. The Court of Appeal reasoned the evidence demonstrated the propane tanks were stable and secure when they were loaded onto King’s trailer, and the load was transported to Amerigas’ facility without incident. Further, the substantial evidence demonstrated that Amerigas’ employees’ negligent acts in unloading the tanks were the proximate causes of King’s injuries.

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October 29, 2014