California Truck Drivers: Hitting the Breaks Truck

Truck driver fatigue is a cause for concern across the nation.  Driving on highways is dangerous at the best of times for any driver…put that driver in an 18 wheeler and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Take the recent Tracy Morgan case.  Tracy Morgan and several of his friends were in the back of a party limo, out traveling from club to club in Los Angeles when a Walmart truck driver, Kevin Roper plowed into their vehicle, seriously injuring Mr. Morgan, several other passengers and killing one of Tracy Morgan’s friends, Jimmy McNair.

The criminal complaint filed against Mr. Roper included charges for vehicular manslaughter and alleged that he had been driving a 24 hour shift without taking a break.

While the legality of driving for 24 hours without a break is questionable under federal law, it is clearly in violation of California meal and rest break laws, which apply to all employees, not just truck drivers.  In 1994, President Clinton signed into law the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act into effect which seriously curtailed a state’s right to regulate any truck drivers engaged in interstate commerce.

In part, Section 601(h) of the FAAAA, P.L. 103-305, § 601, entitled “Preemption of Intrastate Transportation of Property” stated that no State may

“enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier (other than a carrier affiliated with a direct air carrier covered by section 41713(b)(4)) or any motor private carrier with respect to the transportation of property.

(2) Matters not covered.

Paragraph (1)

(A)  shall not restrict the safety regulatory authority of a State with respect to motor vehicles, the authority of a State to impose highway route controls or limitations based on the size or weight of the motor vehicle or the hazardous nature of the cargo, or the authority of a State to regulate motor carriers with regard to minimum amounts of financial responsibility relating to insurance requirements and self-insurance authorization;  and…”

Until recently, California Courts had been in agreement that this section of the federal law preempted a State’s right to require companies employing truckers to give them meal and rest breaks.  The courts reasoned, prompted by arguments from trucking company lawyers, that meal and rest breaks increased the cost of doing business, affected services and also would cause route adjustments for trucking companies and that therefore must be prohibited by the preemption clause of the FAAAA.

A recent case in the Ninth United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Northern District in San Francisco took a different viewpoint, making years of case decisions in favor of employers obsolete overnight.  The opinion in Dilts v. Penske Logistics, a unanimous one, held that truckers are indeed protected by California laws on meal and rest breaks.

Judge Susan Graber, writing for the panel, held that the California laws that require meal and rest breaks do not set prices, mandate or prohibit certain routes, or tell motor carries what services they may or may not provide.  They are normal background rules that nearly all employers must follow when doing business in California.

The court went on to point out that nearly all regulations increased the cost of doing business somewhat, and that some were even specifically allowed for in the FAAAA, such as insurance and safety regulations.  She added that California minimum wage laws applied to truck drivers and all other employers, finding no difference between the laws.

Ultimately, the decisions rested on the interpretation of the ‘related to’ language in the statute.  The Dilts court clearly found that meal and rest break provisions of the California employment code do not ‘relate to’ a price, route, or service of any motor carrier, at least not in any real sense.

The public policy implications are also worth mentioning.  Californians have a vested interest in making sure that truck drivers are not forced by their employers to drive long hours without meal or rest breaks.  Mr. Dilts, in the above-mentioned case, testified that he typically worked more than ten hours a day and was neither required nor encouraged to take any sorts of breaks.  That case represented more than 300 truck drivers working for Penske.  That’s in excess of 300 drivers simply for one company on the roads, driving long hours without adequate rest.

As was recently reported by NBC4 in Los Angeles, however, the United States Congress, buoyed by lobbyist money, no doubt, is considering making truck drivers even more dangerous to the nation’s citizens.

Over a year ago Congress adopted rules that would limit the number of hours a truck driver can work per week to 70.  Seems reasonable, since I regularly work nearly 70 hours a week as a labor lawyer (although my job doesn’t entail driving a multi-ton missile down the middle of a crowded highway).  But Congress and shipping companies don’t agree.  Only allowing truck driver to work a paltry 70 hours a week must seriously cut into their bottom line, because lawmakers are now considering raising that minimum to 82 hours per week.  That’s nearly HALF of the hours in a week (168 for those of you who are math-challenged like me).

Given Congress’ lack of consideration for the average citizen, maybe California lawmakers should step in and increase the number of meal and rest breaks for truck drivers so that they aren’t being required to work around the clock.

If you feel that your employer has violated your meal or rest period rights, or if you are a truck driver who is being forced to log long hours in violation of state law, contact Stephen Danzq & Associates at (877) 789-9707 or use the Contact Form on our website to schedule a free consultation today.  Stephen and one of his senior associates will sit down with you to discuss the facts of your case and outline any possible causes of action you may have.  With more than three decades of experience defending the rights of workers in California and around the world, Stephen is the best choice for an employment attorney.  He is also the head of a statewide California employee-side law firm and never represents employers or big business.

We look forward to defending your rights.