Extreme Caution Required for Truckers in Hazardous Weather

In hazardous weather conditions affecting visibility or traction, a federal standard of “extreme caution” rather than a state standard of “ordinary care” is required of interstate commercial truckers.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, 49 C.F.R. § 392.14 requires:

“Extreme caution in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle shall be exercised when hazardous conditions, such as those caused by snow, ice, sleet, fog, mist, rain, dust, or smoke, adversely affect visibility or traction. Speed shall be reduced when such conditions exist. If conditions become sufficiently dangerous, the operation of the commercial motor vehicle shall be discontinued and shall not be resumed until the commercial motor vehicle can be safely operated. Whenever compliance with the foregoing provisions of this rule increases hazard to passengers, the commercial motor vehicle may be operated to the nearest point at which the safety of passengers is assured.”

All states have adopted the same “extreme caution rule for intrastate (inside one state) commercial trucking in bad weather, and the Commercial Driver’s License manuals for all states define more specific standards of how to exercise such “extreme caution” in a variety of adverse weather conditions:

  • Wet road: “Reduce speed by about one-third (e.g., slow from 55 to about 35 mph) on a wet road.”
  • Packed snow: “On packed snow, reduce speed by a half, or more.”
  • Icy road: “If the surface is icy, reduce speed to a crawl and stop driving as soon as you can safely do so.”

The “extreme caution” standard for motor carrier operation in adverse weather may be considered as a regulation, as an industry standard and as an industry practice, all of which help define the standard of care for trucking in bad weather. Asbury v. MNT, Inc., 2014 WL 6674475 (D.N.M.,2014).

Courts may allow a jury to consider violation of this “extreme caution” rule as evidence of negligence under state tort law. Gruenbaum v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., 2011 WL 563912 (S.D.Ohio,2011); Tavorn v. Anthony Ulderico Cerelli & Redford Bldg. Supply, 2007 WL 2189075 (Mich.Ct.App. 2007); Labbee v. Roadway Express, 469 F.2d 169 (8th Cir.1972). See also, Pedigo v. Barr-Nunn Transp., Inc., 2011 WL 112103 (M.D.Tenn.,2011).

Trucking companies have a duty to instruct their drivers on the “extreme caution” standard in adverse weather and require them to comply. Gruenbaum v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., 2011 WL 563912 (S.D.Ohio,2011).

Numerous court decisions agre that it is reversible error for a trial court not to instruct a jury on this "extreme caution" standard when supported by evidence of adverse weather.

In Crooks v. Sammons Trucking, Inc., 2001 WL 1654986 (Cal.App. 3 Dist.,2001), a tractor trailer sped through blowing snow until striking another tractor trailer. The trial court denied a request to charge on the “extreme caution” standard under 49 C.F.R.§ 392.14, instructing the jury instead on the state standard of ordinary negligence. The appellate court reversed, holding that the trial court should have charged on the higher federal regulatory standard rather than the lower standard provided by state law. The same decision was reached in Weaver v. Chavez, 133 Cal.App.4th 1350, 35 Cal.Rptr.3d 514 (Cal.App. 2 Dist.,2005). Clearly, if the federal “extreme caution” standard preempts a state rule of “ordinary care,” the reasons are even stronger for it to preempt a state standard of “willful or wanton misconduct.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court in George v. Estate of Baker, 724 N.W.2d 1 (Minn.,2006), held that it was reversible error to give a “curative” instruction contradicting an attorney’s argument that a “reasonable care” standard did not apply, even though the full instructions included reference to standards of “utmost care” and “extreme caution.”

In Kentucky, Jurek v. Hubbs, 2004 WL 1487116 (Ky.App.,2004), involved denial of the plaintiff’s motion for directed verdict based on 49 C.F.R.§ 392.14 rather than jury instructions. However, the court recognized that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety "regulations govern the operation of commercial motor vehicles in the United States. To the extent that they establish a standard of care higher than the law, ordinances, or regulations of a particular state jurisdiction, a commercial driver must comply with the FMSCR."

The Virginia Supreme Court held, in Kimberlin v. PM Transport, Inc., 264 Va. 261, 563 S.E.2d 665 (Va.,2002), that it was reversible error to direct a verdict for the defendant where there was a question of fact whether truck driver violated the duty created by 49 C.F.R.§ 392.14 to exercise extreme caution under hazardous conditions and whether violation of such duty was a proximate cause of the accident. The court noted that while violation of the regulation does “not constitute negligence per se [It] simply creates an expanded duty of care for the operation of commercial motor vehicles under the conditions stated therein.” 563 S.E.2d at 668-69.

The challenge facing an attorney handling such a case is often to get a busy judge to focus on a body of federal motor carrier safety law with which he or she may little familiarity.

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