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When the Exception Overrides the Rule: Uncertainty After the United States Supreme Court Denied Certiorari in Miller v. C.H. Robinson


Under the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (“FAAAA”), a State is preempted from enacting or enforcing a law or regulation related to the services of a freight broker with respect to the transportation of property. 49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(1). And as with most laws, there are exceptions, including the “safety regulation exception” which provides that FAAAA preemption will not restrict the safety regulatory authority of a State with respect to motor vehicles. 49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(2)(A).

But determining whether tort cases against brokers are preempted when those claims are related to the broker’s allegedly negligent selection of a motor carrier to transport a load for a shipper has left the trucking industry in uncertain waters. Recent interpretations of the FAAAA preemption provision and the safety regulation exception have led to vastly different outcomes for brokers across the country.

In Miller v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., 976 F.3d 1016 (9th Cir. 2020), the Ninth Circuit found that the FAAAA preempted a plaintiff’s negligence claims, but the Court appeared to go to great lengths to construe the safety regulation exception so broadly that preemption could not be enforced as intended. However, to equate a State claim for negligent selection to the safety regulation of a motor vehicle confounds the Congressional intent to provide for preemption in the first place. In other words, broad application of a State’s “regulatory authority” would serve to find exception to causes of action that the FAAAA expressly intended to preempt.

The Ninth Circuit opinion was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Despite conflicting federal district court opinions across the country, the Supreme Court denied certiorari without providing any reason, leaving the Miller opinion to stand unchallenged for the time being.

While the Ninth Circuit opinion is not binding on Texas courts, it is the only Circuit Court opinion on this issue, and without a ruling from the Supreme Court settling the law, Miller has influenced the opinions in Texas and other states since it was issued. Because the courts in Texas have resulted in their own split of opinions, we expect that this issue will also make its way to the Fifth Circuit.

Our law firm is committed to fighting to achieve a fair and balanced reading of the FAAAA as it pertains to negligence claims against freight brokers. This is a critical issue and should continue to be argued in Texas courts and ultimately brought again before the Supreme Court. For more information about these and other issues related to the trucking industry, please do not hesitate to contact our office.

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