Commercial Trucking Laws in California


Commercial trucking companies and truck drivers in California must follow both state and federal regulations. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) establishes the federal regulations that apply to the trucking industry in the United States. These regulations address drug and alcohol testing, maximum hours of service, minimum rest times, proper vehicle marking, transportation of hazardous materials, and truck maintenance. At the state level, California regulates certain aspects of truck operations, legal truck size and weight, designated truck routes, maximum truck speeds on state highways, and weight station requirements.


A truck driver’s failure to abide by a safety law can be strong evidence of negligence in a truck accident lawsuit. California recognizes a legal theory called negligence per se, which means that certain types of conduct are automatically considered to be negligent and the plaintiff’s burden to prove his or her case is reduced. In a trucking accident lawsuit, this means that if a truck driver violates a law designed to protect driver safety and the violation was a substantial factor in causing the driver’s injuries, then the driver will win his or her negligence claim unless the truck driver’s violation was necessary or excused.


California’s rules and regulations for commercial truck drivers meet or exceed the federal requirements. The state requires that drivers have a medical report stating that they are in good enough health to safely operate the vehicle. 

The medical report must be completed and authorized by a licensed medical doctor in the state of California. Truck drivers must also earn the appropriate certifications through the California Department of Motor Vehicles. These licensing certifications involve taking classes at an approved driving school, an on-the-road test, written tests, and an eye exam.


California does have a waiver program for troops to trucks. This is a program designed for discharged members of the military with experience driving military vehicles. Commercial truck drivers in California must maintain a license that is in good standing, and they must renew their driver’s licenses and CDL certifications for Class A and Class B vehicles every four years.


In the trucking industry, independent contractors often assist both licensed haulers and customers in delivering loads to their destination. These relationships may be regular, and recur daily, or they may be sporadic and occasional. Whether others involved in the hauling transaction (besides the negligent driver and his employer) may be viable defendants in a Plaintiff’s personal injury action generally depends on the licenses held by, and the particular business relationship between, the various entities.


Assume, first, a scenario where the negligent driver, or his employer (a “sub-hauler”), entered into an agreement with another carrier (the “hauler”) to transport the hauler’s customer’s goods. A requisite “first step” to the legal inquiry of potential liability is to ascertain whether the hauler was duly permitted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. See, 49 C.F.R. § 390.3. If so, the sub-hauler and its driver may be deemed the hauler’s employee as a matter of law. Federal law governing the hauler defines “employee” inclusively: “Such term includes a driver of a commercial motor vehicle (including an independent contractor while in the course of operating a commercial motor vehicle)….” 49 C.F.R. § 390.5, emphasis added.


If, however, the vehicle involved in the accident was not federally permitted, but was permitted in intrastate commerce, the more arcane provisions of the California “Motor Carriers of Property Permit Act” (Veh. Code §§ 3400 et seq., hereafter, the Act), along with the law of agency, will likely determine legal liability.

The consequences of the Act’s application are best understood by considering three hypothetical scenarios: (1) the negligent driver was hauling a load pursuant to a contractual agreement with a “for-hire motor carrier of property,” as defined by Veh. Code, § 34601(b); (2) the negligent driver was hauling a load pursuant to a contractual agreement with a “private carrier,” as defined by Veh. Code, § 34601(d); and (3) the negligent driver was hauling a load pursuant to a contractual agreement with a non-transportation business entity (e.g., a manufacturer of furniture, coffee, or industrial goods).


(1) A “for-hire motor carrier of property is vicariously liable for the acts of an independent contractor:

Veh. Code, § 34601(b) defines a “for-hire motor carrier of property” as a carrier who “transports property for compensation.” Identification of, and insurance information concerning, such entities is a matter of public record which can be found at the DMV website.


In this hypothetical, assume that, due to other pressing business, XYZ Company, a permitted “for-hire motor carrier” under the Act, retained ABC Haulers (and thereby their assigned driver) as a subhauler, in order to haul XYZ’s customer’s goods. Serna v. Pettey Leach Trucking, Inc. (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 1475, 1486 is among recent cases to state that XYZ is vicariously liable for the negligent acts of ABC in that instance: “Hence, the rule is that a carrier who undertakes an activity (1) which can be lawfully carried on only under a public franchise or authority and (2) which involves possible danger to the public is liable to a third person for harm caused by the negligence of the carrier’s independent contractor. [Citations omitted.] Were the rule otherwise, a carrier could escape liability for the negligence of its independent contractors, thus reducing the incentive for careful supervision and depriving those who are injured of the financial responsibility of those to whom the privilege was granted. For these reasons, the carrier’s duties are nondelegable, and it is only when the carrier is “not regulated” at all that the rule is otherwise.”


(2) Absent an agency relationship, a “private carrier,” as defined by Veh. Code, § 34601(d), is NOT vicariously liable for the acts of its subhauler:  Next, assume that XYZ was retained by FGH Chemical to haul FGH’s own manufactured goods to market. Assume also that FGH is permitted as a “private carrier” under the Act. In that case, FGH is not liable for the acts of XYZ’s employee. That was the holding in Hill Brothers Chemical Company v. Superior Court (2004) 123 Cal.App.4th 1001. There, Hill Brothers were permitted under the Act as a private carrier, as defined by Veh. Code, § 34601(d), that is it was: “…a motor carrier of property, who transports only his or her own property, including, but not limited to, the delivery of goods sold by that carrier.” The court held that Hill Brothers was not vicariously liable for the negligent acts of the driver of the carrier that it had hired to deliver its goods. Finding that Hill was simply a user of the transportation services of a for-hire motor carrier, the court held there was no basis for finding liability under a non-delegable duty theory.


(3) Absent an agency relationship, a contracting entity that is not licensed at all is not vicariously liable for the acts of an independent contractor.


Finally, assume that XYZ was hauling goods for TOP Coffee, an entity possessing no DMV “carrier” license under the Act at all. Where goods are being hauled pursuant to contract with such an entity (i.e., a mere customer), the following rule would generally apply: “As a general rule, a hirer of an independent contractor is not liable for physical harm caused to others by the act or omission of the independent contractor.” J.L. v. Children’s Institute, Inc. (2009) 177 Cal.App.4th 388, 400. Put another way, the rationale for non-liability set forth in Hill Brothers would be even more applicable here, as to an entity which is not even in the business of transportation in the first place: there is no public policy basis for finding a non-delegable duty.


However, an exception to the rule of non-liability in scenarios (2) and (3) might exist. Plaintiff (or a co-defendant) might argue that the relationship between the negligent driver defendant (or his employer) and the contracting entity (either a “private carrier” or a customer) was such as to create an agency relationship, rendering that entity liable for the acts of the negligent driver, as its agent. See, Civil Code Section 2338: “a principal is responsible to third persons for the negligence of his agent in the … the business of the agency….”  That is, Plaintiff can demonstrate that either the customer or “private carrier” had a “right to control” the conduct of the negligent driver and his employer: “Agency and independent contractors are not necessarily mutually exclusive legal categories as an independent contractor and servant or employee are. In other words, an agent may also be an independent contractor. (Citation omitted.) One who contracts to act on behalf of another and subject to the other’s control, except with respect to his physical conduct, is both an agent and an independent contractor. (Citation omitted.)” the City of Los Angeles v. Meyers Bros. Parking System, Inc. (1975) 54 Cal.App.3d 135, 138, emphasis in original.


For example, perhaps discovery will demonstrate that TOP Coffee exercised an exacting day to day supervision over the details of the work of the driver involved in the accident, so as to demonstrate a “right to control:” e.g., when he worked, where he went, what procedures he had to follow, etc. In such an instance, TOP Coffee might be found, at trial, to be a principal vicariously liable for the acts of the negligent driver as its agent. “The existence of an agency is a factual question within the province of the trier of fact….” L. Byron Culver & Assoc. v. Jaoudi Industrial & Trading Corp. (1991) 1 Cal.App.4th 30; see also, CACI 3701 (“Tort Liability Asserted Against Principal—Essential Factual Elements”). It is important to consider this potential means of proving vicarious liability, given an appropriate fact situation, in addition to the possibility of proving non-delegable duty.


The concepts presented here offer initial guidance in what can be a long and challenging process: proving vicarious liability for the negligent acts of a non-employee. The result of that process will often substantially impact the Plaintiff’s ultimate recovery for damages.


An experienced personal injury attorney who handles trucking accident cases can help you better understand how much your case may be worth and what types of damages you should expect to receive.

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