The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

Some Efficiency Initiatives Can Land You in Legal Hotwater

Efforts to increase productivity can make a company more vulnerable to potential lawsuits. By identifying areas of potential liability and addressing those risks, employers can maximize employee productivity while minimizing exposure.

February 2010, by Richard D. Alaniz

For Domino's Pizza, speedy delivery was more than a promise - it was a guarantee: 30 minutes or it's free.

When executives at the pizza chain coined the marketing campaign, they probably didn't consider potential legal ramifications. But legal ramifications followed. Company drivers were involved in several accidents that led to lawsuits, with some plaintiffs claiming the company was liable because it encouraged its delivery people to drive unsafely to deliver pizzas to customers within the half-hour time frame. According to a report in one trade publication, the last straw for Domino's was a $79 million verdict a St. Louis jury awarded a woman hit by an 18-year-old Domino's driver who ran a red light. In 1993, the company abandoned its 30-minute guarantee.

Companies that manage fleets may not employ high school kids to zip around town trying to beat a clock to deliver a hot pizza. However, in the drive to increase efficiencies and improve productivity, some companies may unwittingly find themselves in the same situation Domino's experienced. When companies engage in extensive studies, hire outside consultants, and use routing software programs to determine the most efficient employee driver travel routes, many do not consider how they may be opening the door to increased legal liability and negligence lawsuits.

Companies that utilize technology to improve service call response times may create an unhealthy reliance on technology or inadvertently encourage reckless driving. At least, that is what a plaintiff's lawyer may claim when drivers are involved in accidents. Consider a company with a field force that averages six sales calls a day. With the right technology, dispatchers and managers can reroute drivers to squeeze in one more call before the shift ends. In fact, a driver's performance reviews and bonuses may be based on the ability to complete just one more call.

However, this extra call may leave little time for delays, and a driver who falls behind schedule may rush to get to the next appointment on time. A distracted or hurried driver may roll through a stop sign or speed through a light just turning red and cause an accident. If someone is injured or killed, the first place pinpointed to look for compensation will be the company.

This is just one scenario among many in which productivity gains can make a company more vulnerable to potential lawsuits. By identifying areas of potential liability and addressing those risks, employers still can maximize employee productivity while minimizing exposure. Some of these areas include the following.

Over-Reliance on Technology

Recently, one trucking company found itself the defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit after one of its drivers struck an overpass in Pennsylvania. The accident knocked a container off the driver's truck that hit an SUV and killed the SUV's driver. (The truck driver is facing vehicular homicide charges.)

After the accident, the truck driver reportedly told police he did not measure the container height, which exceeded 13.5 feet. The truck was also not permitted to carry an oversized load. According to one report, the driver told police he did not measure the container and he could not detail his route or report his destination because he was relying on his GPS system.

Companies must stress to their drivers what technology can and cannot do. Simply having GPS in a truck or utilizing routing technology does not replace proper planning or common sense. Drivers must be educated about the limits of available technology. Companies should consider requiring drivers complete a checklist before leaving with a delivery. While drivers may still make errors, such a checklist can help reduce a company's exposure in a lawsuit by proving the driver did not follow proper procedure.

No one could realistically expect a GPS system to measure a container, but GPS systems can - and do - steer drivers onto unsafe or inappropriate routes. Earlier this year, a semi-truck driver, relying on GPS, took a California route with a steep grade that displayed a posted weight limit lower than his big rig weight. The truck's brakes failed and the driver crashed into five vehicles, a bookstore, and a salon, killing two people and critically injuring three others. According to a media report, the driver took that route because his GPS suggested it was the fastest.

It is important drivers understand the need to double-check electronic directions to ensure suggested routes are legal and safe. In addition, truck-specific systems are coming onto the market that can factor in weight, height, and other variables. However, drivers still must be educated to consider these systems as one tool among several, rather than a stand-alone device, in operating their vehicles.

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