MOTOR CARRIER (FEDERAL PREEMPTION & “EMPLOYER” DEFINITION) / The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act – including its definition of “employer” – did not preempt state workers compensation law because “the purposes of the two statutes are clearly distinct”.

Truck driver injured on the job when consignee’s employee drove a forklift over driver’s foot while driver stood on loading dock. First, brought successful claim under Kentucky workers compensation law against his motor carrier-employer, then brought the subject tort suit against consignee and consignee’s parent (diversity jurisdiction). In holding Kentucky workers compensation law provided exclusive relief that precluded the subject tort suit the court ruled: Congress had not, “intended] the [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act] to define ‘employer’ for the purposes of workers’ compensation laws” – therefore it did not preempt Kentucky workers compensation law.

Black v. Dixie Consumer Products, LLC, Slip copy, 2013 WL 645954 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, February 22, 2013). Free copy available here.

“B. Preemption by the Motor Carrier Safety Act

“Black also asserts that the provisions defining “employer” within the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act (FMCSA) preempt the classification of Georgia-Pacific and Dixie as statutory employers under the KWCA.

“The FMCSA states that the primary purpose of the legislation is:

(1) to promote the safe operation of commercial motor vehicles; (2) to minimize dangers to the health of operators of commercial motor vehicles and other employees whose employment directly affects motor carrier safety; and (3) to ensure increased compliance with traffic laws and with the commercial motor vehicle safety and health regulations and standards prescribed and orders issued under this chapter. 49 U.S.C. § 31131(a). The statute provides, inter alia, that an “employer” is “a person engaged in a business affecting interstate commerce that owns or leases a commercial motor vehicle in connection with that business, or assigns an employee to operate it,” 49 U.S.C. § 31132(3)(A), and continues to enumerate various duties of employers with respect to the safety of motor vehicles and their operators.

“When considering federal preemption of state law, this court must begin “with the traditional presumption . . . that Congress did not intend to displace state law . . . unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.” Interstate Towing Ass’n, Inc. v. City of Cincinnati, 6 F.3d 1154, 1161 (6th Cir. 1993) (citations and internal quotations omitted). “In no field has [this] deference to state regulation been greater than that of highway safety regulation.” Id. at 1162. Further, preemption of state authority occurs only in limited cases: (1) where Congress preempts state law in express terms; (2) when Congress creates a regulatory scheme “so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room to supplement it”; or (3) where “state law is preempted to the extent that it actually conflicts with federal law.” Pac. Gas & Elec. Co. v. State Energy Res. Conservation & Dev. Comm’n, 461 U.S. 190, 203-04 (1983).

“Here, the FMCSA did not expressly preempt the Kentucky workers’ compensation statute, and Black [Plaintiff] does not allege any actual conflict between the federal and state laws. Rather, Black claims that the FMCSA is a “comprehensive scheme for the regulation of commercial motor vehicle safety,” which was intended to “fully occupy the parameters of motor carrier employment.”

“However, Black’s argument is without merit. First, there is no indication that Congress intended the FMCSA to preempt state workers’ compensation statutes where the purposes of the two statutes are clearly distinct. The primary purpose of the KWCA is to ensure that workers’ compensation benefits are available to injured employees and thus requires contractors to assume responsibility for the provision of workers’ compensation benefits where the subcontractor has otherwise failed to do so. In contrast, the FMCSA was enacted specifically to promote the safety of commercial motor vehicles and their operators and accordingly sets forth detailed safety and health standards for those operators. There is simply no indication that the FMCSA, a statute intended to promote commercial motor vehicle safety, should preempt state legislation regarding the provision of workers’ compensation benefits.

“Black further argues that Georgia-Pacific and Dixie should be required to comply with the FMCSA before they may be considered “employers” under the KWCA. However, there is no indication that a classification of Georgia-Pacific or Dixie as an “employer” under the FMCSA should have any bearing on its classification, if any, under the KWCA, or that Congress intended the FMCSA to define “employer” for the purposes of workers’ compensation laws. The fact that Dixie and Georgia-Pacific can be classified as employers for the purpose of one statute, but not the other, is of no consequence.”