U.S. Court of Appeals Affirms Summary Judgment in Favor of Corporation Whose Driver of the Truck in a Rear-End Crash Was an Independent Contractor

Marina Kolchinsky and her mother, Lidia Kolchinsky, were severely injured in a car collision with a tractor-trailer in Illinois. They sued the truck driver and the two companies that contracted with him. The Kolchinskys filed in federal court based on diversity of citizenship. Illinois law controlled.

The district court entered partial summary judgment in favor of Western Dairy Transport LLC and WD Logistics LLC, concluding that the driver was an independent contractor. This was done so that the Kolchinskys could not hold the companies responsible for the driver’s alleged negligence.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago affirmed the summary judgment for these two companies, ruling that the district court properly classified the driver as an independent contractor.

While driving his tractor-trailer through Illinois, William G. Bentley, a Colorado citizen and the owner and sole member of Bill Bentley Trucking LLC, a Colorado limited liability company, rear-ended the Kolchinsky’s car. Bentley had just dropped off a load of milk in Minnesota and was en route to Indiana with an empty trailer to pick up another load.

All deliveries had been arranged by WD Logistics, an LLC consisting of Missouri and Texan citizens as members. WD Logistics instructed Bentley to transport the milk from Indiana to its destination. He was allowed to take any route he selected in order to transport the milk. The Kolchinskys, especially Marina, were severely injured in the crash.

At the time Bentley Trucking regularly provided freight transportation services to WD Logistics, according to the terms of the Carrier/Broker Agreement.

The nonexclusive agreement provided that Bentley Trucking was an independent contractor and retained “full control” over its personnel and that every party could terminate the agreement upon 30 days’ written notice. When Bentley Trucking accepted the job from WD Logistics, it agreed to call the broker daily with a status update, protect the freight, notify the broker of any damage, and inform the broker of delivery.

Bentley Trucking was also responsible for determining delivery times but agreed to inform WD Logistics if Bentley (in his capacity as a driver for Bentley Trucking) could not meet the schedule; the broker reserved the right to withhold any resulting damages from Bentley Trucking’s pay. Finally, the agreement required Bentley Trucking to pay its employees and provide and maintain its own tractor, fuel, insurance, licenses, and permits.

The Kolchinskys, who were citizens of Wisconsin, sued Bentley in federal court alleging that he negligently collided with her car and asserting more than $75,000 in damages. The lawsuit cited theories of respondeat superior and vicarious liability. The Kolchinskys also sued Bentley Trucking, WD Logistics and Western Dairy Transport, an LLC, with the same members as WD Logistics.

WD Logistics moved for summary judgment, arguing that because Bentley Trucking was not its agent, the broker could not be held liable for Bentley’s negligent driving. In support, the company offered evidence showing that WD Logistics did not control how Bentley Trucking performed its work for WD Logistics. WD Logistics also pointed to the agreement, which classified Bentley Trucking as an independent contractor.

Western Dairy also moved for summary judgment arguing that the only possible basis for liability was through WD Logistics and that it had no business relationship with WD Logistics with respect to the trip at issue. Western Dairy and WD Logistics are owned by the same parent company, but their roles were distinct: Western Dairy owns and leases trucks and trailers and hauls freight, while WD Logistics brokers the hauls.

The district court judge granted the summary judgment motions, concluding as a matter of Illinois law that Bentley Trucking was an independent contractor. The district court judge entered a final judgment for WD Logistics and Western Dairy under Rule 54(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures, which permitted the Kolchinskys to immediately appeal even though their claims against Bentley and Bentley Trucking remained pending.

The court of appeals agreed with the district court in that the evidence showed as a matter of law that Bentley Trucking was not an agent of WD Logistics or Western Dairy. Accordingly, the summary judgment orders were affirmed.

Kolchinsky v. Western Dairy Transport LLC and WD Logistics LLC, No. 19-1739 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, Jan. 6, 2020).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury lawsuits, truck accident lawsuits, rear-end motor vehicle crash cases, bicycle accident lawsuits, wrongful death cases and motorcycle accident lawsuits for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Antioch, Arlington Heights, Bensenville, Calumet City, Deerfield, Evanston, Flossmoor, Gurnee, Homewood, Itasca, Joliet, Kenilworth, Long Grove, Mundelein, Naperville, Chicago (Wicker Park, Bucktown, Andersonville, Bronzeville, Uptown, West Town, Little Italy, Greek Town, Woodlawn, Jackson Park, Washington Park), Morton Grove, Niles, Des Plaines and Elmwood Park, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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