In Texas, with our miles and miles of highways, our close proximity to Mexico, and our numerous ports (land and water), there are many truck drivers employed in our state. In addition, with the recent dramatic increase of drilling activity in Texas, there are more trucks on Texas highways than at any time I can remember. For example, I am reminded of that increase as I drive from Austin to Corpus Christi or Austin to Yoakum, Texas. Driving through the counties affected by the Eagle Ford Shale, truck after truck appears to be related to the drilling.
As operators on the public roads of our state, commercial truck drivers are bound and legally obligated to follow a large number of state and federal regulations, many of which are designed to protect the safety of truck drivers and the motoring public. For example, most drivers are bound by safety regulations dictated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. However, in some cases, whether to save time, save money, or for some other reason, employers of truck drivers ask their employees to take short cuts or break laws. And when the boss or supervisor asks a truck driver to break safety rules or laws, both the truck driver and the motoring public at large are in danger. Considering the speed, size of loads, and weights of the trucks, this danger can be very serious and life threatening to many people.
Because of the safety that is at stake for trucker whistleblowers and the motoring public, there are federal laws which protect some drivers who blow the whistle on safety violations or refuse to drive in violation of safety rules. The main federal law which provides protection for Texas truck driving whistleblowers is the Surface Transportation Assistance Act or STAA. The STAA provides that certain employers may not fire certain truck drivers or otherwise discriminate or discipline a truck driver for:
- Filing a complaint or beginning a proceeding related to a violation of a commercial vehicle safety or security regulation;
- Testifying in a proceeding related to a violation of a commercial vehicle safety or security regulation;
- Refusing to operate a vehicle because operation of such vehicle would violate a regulation, standard, or order related to commercial vehicle safety;
- Refusing to operate a vehicle because the employee fears serious injury to himself or herself or the motoring public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition;
- Accurately reporting hours on duty; or
- Cooperating with an investigation by the Secretary of Transportation, the NTSB, or Secretary of Homeland Security
In simple terms, if a covered truck driver is fired for refusing to commit a safety violation, for refusing to drive when dangerous conditions exist, or for complaining about safety violations, he/she should be protected by the STAA. For example, if a covered truck driver refuses to drive after he has worked the allowable number of hours per day or per week (or otherwise per the requirements of law), an employer typically cannot fire that employee. Likewise, an employer cannot fire a covered truck driver when the employer has failed to fix safety violations on the truck.
Whether a truck driver or his/her employer is covered by the STAA depends on a number of factors, including the type of truck being driven, the type of load being driven, and the routes being driven.
While the STAA is a law that has been in existence for a while, it was recently strengthened to provide even greater protections for truck drivers. A truck driver that wins a proceeding under the STAA can get his job back, receive lost wages, compensatory damages, attorneys’ fees, and up to $250,000 in punitive damages. The proceeding begins with an investigation by the Department of Labor and can move to a trial before an Administrative Law Judge or trial in federal court.
Over the past few years, I have taken on cases under the STAA, and I have found the STAA to be a very strong (although complex) law for truck driver whistleblowers.
While Texas has a number of laws that govern truck driving and regulate truck drivers, Texas does not provide specific protections for a trucker whistleblower. Even though Texas does not provide such protections, any Texas truck driver that is covered by the STAA is protected by the STAA. In addition, Texas does have a legal cause of action for employees that are fired for refusing to commit an illegal act. This cause of action is called the Sabine Pilot cause of action, named after the Texas Supreme Court case that created this protection. So, if a Texas truck driver refuses to break a law (such as driving too many hours, driving an unsafe truck, driving when too fatigued, or falsifying log records) he or she may have protection if fired for refusing to break a law. The Sabine Pilot cause of action provides for recovery of lost wages, compensatory damages, and punitive damages.
In conclusion, any truck driver that has been fired or has experienced retaliation for refusing to break a law or for blowing the whistle in general should learn more about his or her rights. I encourage any truck driver who has been through this experience to contact my firm–The Cook Law Firm–or another Texas employment lawyer that regularly represents employees. In addition, that truck driver may contact the U.S. Department of Labor. More information about the STAA may be found at http://www.whistleblowers.gov/acts/staa.html or http://www.workplacefairness.org. MOST IMPORTANTLY, any truck driver intending to protect his or her rights must move very quickly. The STAA provides that a truck driver must file a complaint with the Department of Labor within 180 days of any violation of the STAA. I always encourage my clients to move as quickly as possible in filing complaints, so there is no issue as to timeliness.
Lastly, please remember that this post and the posts in this blog are not legal advice, and can’t be for the reasons posted in my disclaimer on my website. If you need legal advice for your employment situation, you should contact an attorney who can discuss your case and provide you with advice that applies to your situation.