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.

[PAGEBREAK]The Electronic Trail

When companies install tracking software, they may realize the implications of the records these devices can leave. Several years ago, a commercial truck driver rear-ended a car during what was supposedly the 10th hour of his 10-hour trip, injuring the car driver. The car driver sued the company for negligence. During the trial, the truck's GPS system became an issue when the plaintiff's attorney proved the driver had falsified his driving log and exceeded the 10-hour limit several times during the week before the crash. The company admitted liability and settled on compensatory damages claims.

The "black box" or engine control module installed on a truck that records a driver's speed could also be used to hold a driver and a company liable in a lawsuit. During a trial, an attorney who can prove a driver was exceeding the speed limit immediately before an accident can make a dramatic impact on a jury.

Squeezing in just a few extra minutes during a run or driving just a hair over the speed limit can be very tempting for drivers, particularly during the current economic climate when a little extra money can make a big difference. However, employers must stress the importance of following all regulations that affect speed and driving times. They must also clearly state they will not tolerate falsified records, emphasizing that consequences exist for drivers caught doing so.

Too Much Equipment

Not long ago, truck drivers had to rely on citizen band radios (CBs) to communicate with dispatchers and the main office. Now, cell phones, GPS devices, personal digital assistants, and computers are commonly used. While these devices can help improve efficiencies, they can also be distracting. A distracted driver is potentially a dangerous one, opening companies up to lawsuits.

The issue is a contentious one, and currently, a baffling array of local and state laws require hands-free devices when driving a vehicle. Federal legislation is also under consideration that could seriously curtail the types of on-road communication devices on which companies and drivers rely.

The reality an employer has carefully developed policies and procedures to ensure safe use of these devices may not sway a jury who has heard a heart-breaking story about a company driver accidentally injuring or killing a pedestrian while getting a text from the dispatcher with new routing information.

Companies need to understand which laws regulate routes their drivers use and learn about relevant pending legislation. Working with legal counsel and human resources staff, employers should also train drivers on safe ways to use communication devices.

[PAGEBREAK]Training to Avoid Unclear Expectations

The latest cutting-edge technology cannot substitute for adequate employee training and clear communication about a company's goals and expectations. While everyone is striving to do business more efficiently and save money, a multimillion dollar negligence verdict and the resulting bad publicity can quickly wipe out any savings from increased productivity initiatives.

Companies must offer training and education to drivers, dispatchers, and managers concerning the paramount importance of safety - not only the safety of employees, but also of the general public whom those employees encounter on the road while on company business. They should also consider whether their current compensation structures encourage employees to behave in unsafe ways.

Fleet managers may find it worthwhile to consult with corporate attorneys or legal staff who can review current company policies and procedures to ensure they are designed with safety in mind. A company that can prove it has clearly outlined its expectations of employee drivers can better defend itself against a negligence lawsuit when an employee flouts company policy.

This cautionary approach need not be incompatible with efforts to increase employee productivity. After all, in 2007, Domino's Pizza brought back the idea of a half-hour delivery with its "You Got 30 Minutes" campaign. However, under the category of "Legal Stuff," the Domino's Web site stresses, "Because safety is a priority, 'You Got 30 Minutes' is not a guarantee, but an estimate."

About the Author

Richard D. Alaniz is senior partner at Alaniz and Schraeder, a national labor and employment firm based in Houston. He can be reached at (281) 833-2200 or ralaniz@alaniz-schraeder.com.

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