Attorney Fee Claims in Minnesota Trucking Cases?

March 24, 2017

Does Minn. Stat. § 227.271 Create a Private Right of Action for Violations of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and their Minnesota Analogues? by Jeffrey J. Woltjen and James F. Mewborn

Minnesota Chapter 221 regulates both interstate and intrastate motor carriers operating in Minnesota. The statutes largely adopt the federal motor carrier legislation, known as the Federal Motor Safety Carrier Regulations (“FMCSRs”), codified as 49 C.F.R. §§ 300.01 et seq., which set forth the mandatory safety regulations that motor carriers must follow in the course of transporting persons or property for business purposes.

One key difference between Minnesota Chapter 221 and its federal analogue, however, is that Minnesota’s scheme includes a section which specifically addresses liability of any person who is found to have violated the relevant safety regulations. 

Minn. Stat. § 221.271, Liability provides:

Any person which shall do or cause to be done any unlawful act as herein provided, or fail to perform any duty described, or violate any duly established order, rule or directive of the commissioner, or which shall aid or abet in the performance of any unlawful act or in the failure to perform any such duty, shall be liable in damages to any person injured thereby, and such person, if the person recovers, shall be allowed, in addition to damages, reasonable attorney’s fees, together with costs and disbursements.

Since this specific provision’s enactment in 1957, there have been only two appellate decisions which touch upon the subject. The first case was Iacona v. Schrupp, which involved a personal injury action against a truck driver for negligent infliction of emotional distress. 509 N.W.2d 185 (Minn. Ct. App. 1993). In that case, David Helmen and Joseph Iacona, who had both been drinking heavily, were involved in a single-car accident. After the accident, Helmen flagged down David Schrupp, an employee of Service Oil of Prinsberg, Inc., for help. Schrupp stopped his tanker a few blocks beyond the accident scene, then backed up on the shoulder of the road to reach the two men. 

As Schrupp backed up, his tanker hit Helmen. Then, when Iacona told Schrupp what had happened, Schrupp panicked and left the scene. By leaving the scene, Schrupp violated 49 C.F.R. § 392.40. On the day of trial, the court granted Iacona’s motion to amend the complaint to allege a private cause of action under Minn. Stat. §§ 221.605 and 221.271, and 49 C.F.R. § 392.40. Minn. Stat. § 221.605 provides that all interstate carriers and private carriers must comply with the FMCSRs found in CFR 49, parts 40, 382, 383, 387, and 390 through 398. 

The trial court certified to the Minnesota Court of Appeals the issue of whether Minn. Stat. §§ 221.605 and 221.271 create a private cause of action for a violation of a federal motor carrier safety regulation. On appeal, Iacona contended that combined with § 221.605, the language “shall be liable in damages” in § 221.271 creates a private cause of action. 

The court of appeals looked at the legislative history of the statute. Section 221 was enacted in 1957 but section 221.605 was not enacted until 31 years later in 1988. The Court of Appeals determined that the 1988 act appeared to be “in the nature of a department bill, including a mix of routine substantive provisions and housekeeping amendments to transportation law.” 

The Court held that:

“In enacting Minn. Stat.§221.605, the legislature did not intend it to relate back to section 221.271 so as to create a private cause of action for violation of a federal motor carrier safety standard.” 

Although not at issue in Iacona, the statute incorporating federal regulations for intrastate carriers, Minn. Stat. §221.0314, was not enacted until 1993 - - 36 years after §221.271 was enacted.  One could thus argue that the Iacona court would have reached a similar conclusion for situations involving intrastate carriers, i.e., that there is no private cause of action for violation of a FMCSR, whether the transportation at issue is interstate or intrastate.

Some twenty years later, on a country road in Winsted, Minnesota, 19-year-old George Andrew Karels rear-ended an F-150 pickup driven by Dustin Ray George Dittmar. Karels was driving a 17,000 pound Peterbilt dump truck, which was hauling a 1.86 ton load for his family’s scrap-metal business. Dittmar sustained injuries and brought a personal-injury action against George Karels, his parents, and the family business, KBS. Dittmar v. Karels, 2016 WL 7335806.

In addition to suing the Karels under theories of negligence and vicarious liability, the complaint also alleged that Dittmar was entitled to attorney fees, costs, and disbursements under Minn. Stat. § 221.271 (2014) because KBS, while transporting property in interstate commerce, violated federal motor-carrier safety regulations adopted by Minnesota pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 221.605. 

Dittmar claimed that KBS was a private motor carrier engaged in interstate commerce and was therefore subject to the regulations provided under Minnesota Chapter 221. Since George Karels did not have a commercial driver’s license, and had operated his vehicle in a careless manner, he and KBS had violated two provisions of this chapter. 

Before trial, the Karels admitted liability for causing the accident and admitted that George Karels did not have a commercial driver’s license at the time, which was a violation of Minn. Stat. § 221.031. The case was tried before a jury solely on the issue of damages. The jury returned a verdict for Dittmar in the amount of $81,297.82, and Dittmar moved for attorney fees, costs, and disbursements under § 221.271.

Following a hearing, the court denied Dittmar’s motion for attorney’s fees. The court explained that in the complaint, Dittmar had alleged that the Karels violated Minn. Stat. § 221.605, which requires interstate carriers to comply with federal regulations, but in Dittmar’s posttrial motion, he alleged that he was entitled to the award because Karels violated Minn. Stat. §§ 221.031 and 221.0314, which required intrastate carriers to comply with the same regulations. 

The court explained that, because the violations of § 221.605 that were alleged in the complaint were not brought to the courts attention either before or during trial, the jury was never asked to determine whether § 221.605 was violated. The court then concluded that the existing factual findings, whether made by the jury or provided by respondents' admission that they caused the accident, were not sufficient for the court to determine that Minn. Stat. §§ 221.031 and 221.0314 were violated.

The Court of Appeals’ ruling was focused on the issue of whether Dittmar’s pleadings and the general stipulation of liability were sufficient to allow the trial court to find that Defendants had violated Minn. Stat. §§ 221.031 and 221.034; in reaching its holding, the Court does not even mention the Iacona decision. The inescapable implication from this ruling is that had Dittmar more carefully pled and litigated his claim, he may very well have prevailed because the Court of Appeals seemed to take as a given that § 221.271 does create a private right of action for Plaintiffs who were harmed as a result of a defendant’s violation of any applicable provisions of Chapter 221, be they interstate or intrastate.

The lack of any reference in Dittmar to the Court’s decision in Iacona raises the question: Did the Court of Appeals overlook the Iacona decision, or does Dittmar signal a sea change for commercial trucking litigation in Minnesota? Though unreported, Dittmar will undoubtedly be used by plaintiffs in future commercial trucking cases to argue that § 221.271 creates a private right of action for any violation of section 221, for which attorneys’ fees and costs can be recouped in addition to damages. Given that potential for increased litigation, the Minnesota Supreme Court may ultimately be asked to provide the final interpretation on the issue.

Click here to read the Court of Appeals Iacona decision and here to read the Dittmar v. Karels opinion

The members of Arthur Chapman’s Commercial Transportation Group stand ready to answer your questions on this or any other topic involving trucking or transportation law.