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Limiting Logo Liability for Motor Carriers

September 29, 2020 | John McLeod

While questions remain under Missouri law as to whether and under what circumstances the presumption of “logo liability” for motor carriers applies, and is rebuttable, the Missouri Court of Appeals recently affirmed that the doctrine only applies when there is evidence that the motor carrier operates as a carrier-lessee.

The plaintiffs in Hearns v. ABF Freight System, Inc., were involved in a motor vehicle accident with a tractor trailer displaying the ABF signage. The tractor-trailer failed to stop following the accident and left the scene. The driver of the truck was never identified. 

At trial, the plaintiffs moved for a directed verdict under the logo liability doctrine. They contended that the only evidence in the case proved the accident truck displayed ABF signage. ABF contested the motion by arguing logo liability was inapplicable because it did not use leased drivers—all of its drivers are employees. ABF contended the traditional agency and vicarious liability principles applied. The Court treated plaintiffs’ motion as one for summary judgment and denied the motion. 

The issue returned during the instruction conference when plaintiffs tendered instructions based on logo liability. The Court rejected the instructions and found that there was no evidence in the case that a carrier-lessee relationship existed. The Court instructed the jury that in order to find for the plaintiffs, it must first find that the driver was acting in the course and scope of his employment with ABF. The jury returned a defense verdict. 

The Missouri Supreme Court identified the elements for logo liability under Missouri law as requiring: (1) that a sign or identifying legend was furnished by the carrier in connection with a lease; (2) that the sign was on the truck at the time of the accident; and (3) the truck was hauling regulated freight at the time of the accident. Johnson v. Pac. Intermountain Express Co., 662 S.W.2d 237, 245 (Mo. banc. 1983).

At issue in Hearns is the first element. The trial court, in rejecting plaintiffs’ proposed jury instruction on logo liability, determined that there was no evidence supporting that the unidentified driver was a leased driver. In fact, the only evidence demonstrated that all of ABF’s drivers were employees. 

The plaintiffs argued the jury should have been instructed on logo liability. The Court of Appeals noted the application of logo liability would have shifted the burden of proof. Under logo liability, it would be ABF’s burden to prove that unidentified driver was on a personal mission not connected to hauling regulated freight. However, under vicarious liability, plaintiffs bear the burden of proving the unidentified driver was acting in the course and scope of his employment with ABF. The Court of Appeals found the record was completely devoid of any evidence that ABF ever operated as carrier-lessee.

Plaintiffs asserted logo liability is not limited to carrier-lessee situation and applies in any situation when a commercial vehicle is displaying a motor carrier’s placard. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument. It noted plaintiffs’ failure to cite any Missouri case in which logo liability had been applied in cases where a lease was not at issue. It refused to extend the doctrine to cases where there was no evidence that the motor carrier operated using leased drivers. It r-iterated the first element of logo liability, as directed by the Missouri Supreme Court, required the plaintiffs to prove the placards were provided in connection with a lease. 

The Court also discounted plaintiffs’ public policy arguments that applying logo liability only in carrier-lessee situations runs counter to the reasons the doctrine was created. Plaintiffs asserted the doctrine was designed to address motor carriers attempting to avoid liability by hiring independent contractors to haul freight. The Court held:

Without question, the public policy supporting the creation of the logo-liability doctrine stemmed from a concern over a very specific issue that had arisen—and not to supplant the general rules of vicarious liability as developed under common law.

In affirming the defense verdict, the Court of Appeals confirmed that the mere presence of a motor carrier’s placard on a vehicle alone is insufficient to invoke logo liability. Plaintiffs must satisfy all of the required elements of logo-liability including that the placard was furnished in connection with a lease. Without evidence demonstrating the motor carrier utilized some leased drivers, plaintiffs cannot rely on logo liability. 

While questions remain whether the presumption created by logo liability is truly rebuttable, and if so, what evidence is sufficient to rebut the presumption, motor carriers now have excellent case law barring the application of the doctrine when the only evidence is that the motor carrier’s placard was on the accident truck. The Court of Appeals affirmed that the doctrine applies only if there is evidence that the motor carrier operated as a carrier-lessee.

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The BSCR Missouri Law Blog examines significant developments, trends and changes in Missouri law on a broad range of topics of interest to Missouri practitioners and attorneys and businesses with disputes subject to Missouri law. Learn more about the editor, David Eisenberg.

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