Truck Broker Liability is Real

Truck capacity continues to tighten in the USA, and there isn’t any significant relief coming anytime soon. The capacity issue has a few contributors such as growing freight volume and the ELD mandate, but no contributor to the capacity shortage has more impact than the good old fashioned driver shortage. There are various reasons for the driver shortage, but specifically for long-haul drivers, it boils down to not enough money for a very demanding job.

One of the byproducts of the driver shortage and diminished capacity is more shippers turning to 3PL’s to cover loads the shipper could formally cover themselves. 3PL’s are thrilled their phones are ringing with more business, but they face one undeniable fact. No matter how many new 3PL’s develop or how much growth there is in the third party market, truck capacity isn’t growing at the same pace. This growth imbalance virtually guarantees a lively competition between 3PL’s as they all fight to find the capacity to haul their customer’s freight.

For those of us who have worked in the truck-load brokerage business, we know the pressure can be enormous to find trucks to haul loads in a tight market. Nothing irks brokerage management more than to have waiting revenue not earned and being forced to tell customers they can’t do what they advertised they are in business to do, which is find trucks. There have always been ‘bad truck days’ for most brokers and always will be, but if there is a continued pattern of having to hand loads back to shippers, it is predictable there may be some ‘reaching’ going on to cover loads.

Reaching for trucks can come in several forms, but the most devastating form is ignoring protocol for vetting carriers to get a load covered. In a high-pressure environment, a temptation to get a load covered ‘no matter what’ can result in the elimination of due diligence. This type of ‘trying to get away with one’ workaround can expose the customer’s freight to higher risk and expose the broker to increased liability.

The Accident

In the past, the carrier bore the burden of most liability for actions of a truck and driver; this is not necessarily the case today. As J.B Hunt painfully found out October 2017, liability for a carrier’s action can now travel up the food chain to the organization that contracted the carrier. Mr. Isaac Espinoza was awarded $15.5 million in damages as a result of a 2013 collision with a truck driven by Mr. Ricky L. Hatfield. At the time of the accident, Mr. Hatfield had a blood alcohol level more than three times the limit allowed for commercial drivers. Hired by J.B. Hunt as an independent contractor, Mr. Hatfield caused grave injury to Mr. Espinoza.

The Liability

It is clear Mr. Hatfield was at fault for Mr. Espinoza’s injuries. But a jury only found Mr. Hatfiled only 60% at fault for the accident. J.B. Hunt was also found to be 40% responsible for Mr. Espinoza’s catastrophic injuries. The jury decided if J.B. Hunt had done proper due diligence when selecting Hatfield as a contractor, he would not have been hired to move the load thus the accident would not have happened. Mr. Hatfield’s record before the accident included a driving under the influence charge, a reckless driving charge, and being fired from another trucking company for failing a drug and alcohol test. Even J.B Hunt agreed they would not have tendered the load to Hatfield if they knew of his history. J.B. Hunt’s liability was they never checked.

What You Can Do

If the liability of improper vetting can reach 3PL’s it may also reach shippers using the same ‘should have known’ logic. In this time of driver shortages and pressure to move loads, assessing company protocol for carrier vetting is more important than ever. While good process and procedure won’t catch all the bad apples, it will catch enough to reduce overall risk. Even if there is an incident despite best practice checks, having done comprehensive checks will help prevent the liability from traveling upstream to your door.

As a shipper, ask your 3PL what their vetting process is and what benchmarks they use in approving a carrier to haul your freight. If the answer is the 3PL only checks to confirm the carrier’s insurance is active, you may want to question your relationship with the 3PL. Mr. Hatfield’s insurance was likely active. The 3PL should be checking things like the carriers safety record, DOT inspection records, the number of power units and drivers, yearly miles driven, and even fleet or truck age.

Better yet, as a shipper, you can easily check the carrier out yourself as an added safeguard. When you or your 3PL covers a load, request the carriers name and MC number or USDOT number. Armed with this information you can go to the online ‘Safer Web’ system run by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Safer Web contains up to date information on carriers that haul freight in the USA and Canada. You can find the Safer Web website here

In Safer Web you can find information including the size of the carrier and what operational classifications the carrier possesses. The information is basic but can be valuable when considering a carrier.

Basic Information

Does the carrier name you were given match the MC or DOT number?

Is the carrier’s MC and DOT number still active?

Is the carrier’s size right for your need? There is nothing wrong with a small carrier, but for longer runs you may prefer a larger carrier that would more easily re-power a load in the event the original truck has a catastrophic failure.

Does the carrier have enough ‘miles’ under their belt? If the carrier’s information lists two drivers and two power units, but only 30,000 yearly miles, the carrier may not have the needed experience for your long haul.

What is listed as the carrier’s ‘cargo carried’? If the carrier has only checked ‘general freight’ and ‘logs, beams and lumber’ as their cargo carried, and you are loading a twelve-foot wide machine, take pause and ask about the carriers experience with over-dimensional cargo. The carrier should have also listed ‘Machinery, Large Objects’ in the cargo carried section.

Lastly, when the carrier arrives to load, does the carrier name and DOT number you have match the name and DOT number on the door of the truck that shows up to pick up your freight? If not it could be a case of carrier impersonation for theft purposes. At the very least, if the carrier brokered out the load, what’s the use of checking a carrier’s record if the particular carrier is not who shows up to take the load? If dealing directly with a carrier require your load not be brokered out without your consent and outlaw double brokering when working with 3PL’s.

Inspections and Crashes US and Canada

The DOT routinely inspects CDL drivers and their trucks, and you have access to the results through Sefer Web. The inspection results are for a 24 month period and cover ‘Vehicle’ ‘Driver’ ‘Hazmat’ and ‘Intermodal Equipment Provider’ results. The data shows the total number of inspections for the category and the number of trucks or drivers taken out of service as a result of the inspections. The handy information also provided in this section shows how your carrier measures up against national averages of trucks or drivers taken out of service. If the national average for drivers taken out of service at inspection is 5.51% and your carrier is sporting a 15% drivers out of service number, the carrier may not be hiring, training, or managing their drivers properly. The same goes for the trucks taken out of service. If your carrier has a significantly higher percentage of trucks taken out of service than the national average, it may be a sign of sloppy operations and lacking maintenance.

In the case of small carriers, the numbers may not be a true reflection of the carrier. Take into consideration the volume of inspections count as much as measuring the carrier’s percentage to the national average. For an owner-operator who has only had three inspections, was taken out of service after only one of the inspections, the owner-operator will show a percentage above the national average and likely appear higher than acceptable levels. In these cases look to the miles per year driven combined with the number of drivers, and recorded accidents. Not every carrier can have a thousand trucks on the road for a good sampling of data.

The system does indeed also list crashes, tows, fatalities, and injuries. There is no national average listed for comparison. Crashes, even those with injuries and fatalities, are inevitable for carriers logging millions of miles each year so don’t let the fact a carrier has crashes scare you. For a carrier with 948 drivers with logged miles of 81 million, there may be upwards of 70 incidents which is not a bad record. This information can be combined with inspection records to enhance your view of the carrier. If the number of crashes over a 24 month period exceeds 1.5 crashes per million yearly miles, it may not be a reason to exclude the carrier, but it is a reason to look closer at the carrier inspection records. If you see higher than average out of service numbers combined with a higher crash number, the carrier may be a high-risk carrier.

Carrier Rating

Safer Web does not have a carrier-grade such as an A, B, C, D, F. Carriers are rated ‘Satisfactory’ ‘Conditional’ or ‘Unsatisfactory’.

  • Satisfactory; Records indicate no evidence of substantial non-compliance with safety requirements.
  • Conditional; Records indicate that the carrier was out of compliance with one or more safety requirements.
  • Unsatisfactory; Records indicate evidence of substantial noncompliance with safety requirements

In some cases with smaller or newer carriers, there will be no rating at all. No rating does not mean the carrier is bad; it just means there is a lack of data for Safer Web to rate the carrier. Equipped with the total of all of the carrier data you collected on Safer Web it will aid you in making a sound judgment. The vast majority of carriers both small and large are good carriers. Once you use Safer Web and review carriers for a while, when a high-risk carrier does come along their data will stick out like a sore thumb to you.

Despite the inflated length of this article, you will find checking out carriers who haul your freight will only take a few minutes and cost you nothing. You don’t have to join anything nor is there any login required.

Simply go to with the carrier name and MC/DOT number to get a better view of who is hauling your freight. It may just save you 40% of $15.5 million some day.