Hepler Broom, LLC

Missouri Court Rules No-Go on Expanding the Logo Liability Doctrine

September 15, 2020

Paulette Anthony was driving down the road when a truck crossed into her lane, causing her to crash into Lisa Hearn’s vehicle. Hearn sustained serious injury. Hearn claimed to have interacted with the truck driver following the accident, but the truck driver fled the scene before police arrived. The truck and its driver were never identified. However, Hearn claimed that the truck bore ABF signage.

Hearn and her husband, Daniel, sued ABF for negligent operation of a motor vehicle. It would seem the Hearns would have an uphill battle with no identified driver and only a memory of the ABF signage. Yet, the Hearns pursued their case under the theory of logo liability.

To understand the application of this doctrine, it is helpful to know its roots. Leading up to and during the 1960s, truck companies would often lease their trucks to unreliable independent contractors. Once the contractor finished his haul, his contract with the truck company ended and the truck company was no longer responsible for him. So, any accident occurring on the contractor’s way home was not the truck companies’ problem.

The federal government put a stop to that by creating the Interstate Commerce Commission (“I.C.C.”) to enact regulations ensuring that truck companies remained fully responsible for the trucks they leased. One such regulation required contractors to bear I.C.C. identification numbers of the truck company for the entire duration of the trip. That way, if anything happened during the trip, injured parties could identify and hold the truck company liable. Hence, the logo liability doctrine was born.

Over time, Missouri courts were tested on how far the doctrine would go. In 1968, the Missouri Supreme Court was asked to extend the doctrine to cases where the only evidence of a lessor-lessee relationship between the truck company and the contractor was the logo.[1]  The court refused to extend the doctrine in cases where the relationship had ended and evidence refuted a lessor-lessee relationship. However, in 1983, the Missouri Supreme Court expanded the doctrine to apply to cases where the contractor, still in a relationship with the truck company, was hauling freight for a different company but had the truck company’s logo affixed.[2]  The court found that the logo liability doctrine may establish liability “based on appearances, not actualities.” In 1990, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District expanded the doctrine to cases where the mere presence of the logo created a presumption of vicarious liability.[3] Truck companies would have to prove that the truck company attempted unsuccessfully to destroy the appearance of a relationship or that the driver was engaged in an enterprise unrelated to hauling freight.

Understanding how this doctrine expanded over the years clarifies why the Hearns went to trial on such minimal evidence. In considering this appeal, the Hearn court referred back to the three elements the Missouri Supreme Court required in setting the framework for logo liability: (1) a sign or identifying legend from the truck company in connection to a lease must be affixed; (2) the sign must be on the truck at the time of the accident; and (3) the truck must be hauling regulated freight at the time of the accident. Moreover, the Hearn court reiterated that these elements create a presumption of logo liability, but the presumption is rebuttable. The court recognized that the logo liability doctrine broadens the application of vicarious liability from the traditional principles of agency to one of public policy. The point is to hold a substantial entity available to respond to any judgment rendered and to hold them accountable for the contractors they choose.

However, the Hearn court found the logo liability doctrine did not apply here.[4] Specifically, the Hearns failed to establish the first element. The record on appeal was void of any evidence that ABF ever operated as a carrier-lessee. To the contrary, the evidence presented by ABF showed that all of its truck drivers were employees. The Hearns urged the court to expand the doctrine to all truck drivers, but the court refused. Instead, the court recognized that the logo liability doctrine developed from a fundamental concern regarding the relationship between carrier-lessees and independent contractors, not concerns about employers and their truck driver employees.

Without the evidentiary presumption of logo liability in their favor, the Hearns were left with the burden to prove the traditional elements of vicarious liability. Specifically, the Hearns were unable to prove that the anonymous driver inside an ABF truck was acting within the course and scope of his employment when the accident occurred. Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of ABF.[5]

The takeaway from this case is that despite the far-reaching effects the logo liability doctrine has on the trucking industry, there are courts willing to recognize very real limits to the public policy purpose.

[1] Brannaker v. Transamerican Freight Lines, Inc., 428 S.W.2d 524 (Mo. 1968)

[2] Johnson v. Pac. Intermountain Express Co., 662 S.W.2d 237 (Mo.banc 1983)

[3] Parker v. Midwestern Distribution, Inc., 797 S.W.2d 721 (Mo. App. E.D. 1990)

[4] Hearn v. ABF Freight System, Inc., 2020 WL 4590171 (Mo.App. E.D. 2020)

[5] Since the Hearn court handed down its opinion, the Hearns have applied for transfer to the Missouri Supreme Court, and so this opinion is not final.

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