Preemptive Effect of Federal Statutes and Regulations in Interstate Trucking Cases

Any attorney handling trucking accident personal injury and wrongful death cases must understand how the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution provides that any state law that conflicts with a federal law is "without effect."

Federal law preempts state law where:

(1) Congress expressly preempts state law;
(2) congressional intent to preempt is inferred from the existence of a pervasive regulatory scheme; or
(3) state law conflicts with federal law or interferes with the achievement of federal objectives.

The Supremacy Clause invalidates state laws that "interfere with or are contrary to" federal law. "Federal regulations have no less pre-emptive effect than federal statutes."

In passing the Motor Carrier Act, Congress expressed its clear intent to establish a floor rather than a ceiling – minimum safety standards, 49 U.S.C. § 31136, and minimum financial responsibility requirements, 49 U.S.C. § 31139.

The express purpose of the Federal Regulations is to protect the traveling public by imposing financial responsibility on motor carriers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations implement the act, providing in 59 C.F.R. § 392.2 that:

  • [e]very commercial motor vehicle must be operated in accordance with the laws, ordinances, and regulations of the jurisdiction in which it is being operated. However, if a regulation of the Federal Highway Administration imposes a higher standard of care than that law, ordinance or regulation, the Federal Highway Administration regulation must be complied with.

In addition, 49 C.F.R. 392.14 provides, "if a regulation of a Federal Highway Administration imposes a higher standard of care than that law, ordinance, or regulation, the Federal Highway Administration must be complied with."

Thus, the Regulations are intended to preempt state law in tort actions in which a member of the public is injured by the negligence of a motor carrier's employee while operating an interstate carrier vehicle.