Legal Consequences of a Non-English Speaking Truck Driver
I recently wrote about the FMCSA regulations governing the hiring of non-English speaking drivers – in short, a motor carrier shouldn’t hire a non-English speaking truck driver. The Department of Transportation and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration require that truck drivers be able to read and speak English well enough to communicate with the general public, to understand road signs and signals that are in English, to respond to law enforcement and DOT officials, and to fill out paperwork. See 49 C.F.R. § 391.11(b)(2).
But there are truck drivers out on the roads who don’t speak or understand English well enough to be compliant with the regulation, so what are the practical, legal effects on a non-English speaking truck driver who is on the roadways and gets into an accident? You may not like the answer – it depends.
The Tale of Arkady’s Wife
Early in my career as a trucking lawyer, I had a case involving a Russian immigrant to French Canada, who was involved in a wreck in South Alabama. Arkady and his wife were an owner-operator team who hauled loads all over the United States and Canada. One day while is South Alabama, they were involved in an accident that was not their fault. It resulted in their truck being out of commission for a couple of months while being repaired, which in turn resulted in them being unable to earn a living during that time.
Arkady and his wife hired my firm to sue the other driver for their property damage, lost wages, and bodily injuries. I had numerous conversations with Arkady over the phone, but spent more than half of each conversation apologetically asking him to repeat what he had said. His grasp of the English language was minimal, and his heavy Russian accent made it nearly unintelligible.
During the course of the lawsuit, both sides issued written discovery requests. I sent off the Interrogatories and Requests for Production to Arkady so he and his wife could inform the Defendant about their version of events and the injuries and damages they were claiming. It turned out that as poorly as Arkady spoke English, he was able to read and write it even less effectively.
After receiving the paper discovery back from Arkady and wading through it as best I could, I knew I would have to speak with Arkady again to decipher his meanings. I called. We had spoken for 10-15 minutes, when Arkady said to me, “This is Arkady’s wife.” Arkady and his wife had the same baritone voice and speech pattern, and I couldn’t tell them apart! I turned fourteen shades of red, tried to play if off as merely misspeaking, and got off the line as quickly as possible.
Then I settled the case … also as quickly as possible. I could not put these folks in front of a South Alabama jury.
Francisco and the Runaway Tire
Francisco was driving his tractor-trailer from Texas to Florida. While on the interstate in Alabama, a tire released itself from the grasp of an 18-wheeler traveling in the opposite direction. The tire was rolling along about 50mph when it crossed the median and smashed into Francisco’s front drive tire, rendering Francisco unable to control his vehicle. Francisco’s truck then crossed the median into oncoming traffic, collided with a vehicle, and rolled into the woods.
Francisco hadn’t done anything wrong. He could not have avoided the runaway tire. All of his paperwork was in order. He cooperated with the investigating officers. And after the accident scene investigation wrapped up, the State Troopers said he was free to go.
About a year later, Francisco and the motor carrier he was driving for were served with a lawsuit. Things proceeded well in the lawsuit, until it came time for party depositions. Much to my surprise, Francisco arrived at the deposition with an interpreter. When opposing counsel asked him about the interpreter at the beginning of the deposition, Francisco replied that he didn’t speak English. This was also a surprise since I had spoken with Francisco on several occasions.
It didn’t take long after that for the Plaintiff to hire an expert to say that Francisco and the motor carrier were violating the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations because Francisco was a non-English speaking truck driver. Francisco still hadn’t done anything wrong out on the roadway that day. But now the Plaintiff had red herrings in the form of DOT violations that it could throw at the jury. Specifically, Francisco did not speak English well enough to communicate with the general public. And this despite the investigating officer testifying that he had no trouble communicating with Francisco at the scene.
What Are the Legal Effects of Hiring a Non-English Speaking Truck Driver?
It depends. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. I have not told the story of the wrongful death suit that was filed against a Spanish-speaking truck driver I represented. Although it was evident that the other driver had pulled out in front of him, leaving him no time to react, the truck driver barely spoke English (I had to communicate with him through his daughter). He and the motor carrier that hired him had violated the FMCSR. Never mind that his native language had no bearing on what occurred out on the roadway. He became a target because of the language barrier.
The hiring of a non-English speaking truck driver may create grounds for a lawsuit where none existed before. I’ve defended truck wrecks before where the truck driver was not at fault for the accident, but had all sorts of DOT problems. It can be done. But it sure is easier when the driver isn’t at fault and he’s in compliance with industry regulations. Juries are looking for reasons to award money to plaintiffs, and having a non-English speaking truck driver may give them that opportunity where none would have existed otherwise.
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Photo by Tim Whelan.