United States District Court For The Northern District Of Ohio Finds That Plaintiffs’ Bodily Injury Claims Against Freight Brokers And Shippers Are Preempted By The FAAAA And Not Saved By The “Safety Exception”

Robert D. Boroff By Robert D. Boroff

On November 3, 2022, Judge James R. Knepp II of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ruled that plaintiffs’ bodily injury tort claims against freight brokers and shippers are: 1) preempted by the 1994 Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (“FAAAA”) found in 49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(1), and 2) not saved by the “safety exception” found in 49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(2)(A). See Lee v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., N.D. Ohio No. 3:22 CV 91, ECF Doc. No. 48 (Nov. 3, 2022).

This is a huge win for the freight broker and shipping industries in light of the opposite decision reached in Miller v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., 976 F.3d 1016, 1020 (9th Cir. 2020) – the only federal circuit court to have addressed this issue to date. In Lee, Judge Knepp followed the reasoning previously outlined in Creagan v. Wal-Mart Trans, LLC, 354 F. Supp. 3d 808, 813 (N.D. Ohio 2018), and perhaps more importantly, expressly rejected the reasoning and holding espoused inMiller. Judge Knepp found that the FAAAA should be read broadly, and when read broadly, it is clear that the plaintiffs’ claims were related to the freight broker and shipper’s “services” so that preemption applies pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(1).

Judge Knepp also disagreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that, even if their claims fell within the preemption provision, they were nonetheless protected and saved by the “safety exception,” which provides that the FAAAA “shall not restrict the safety regulatory authority of a State with respect to motor vehicles.” In reaching this decision, Judge Knepp rejected the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning in Miller that “the safety regulatory of a state” encompasses plaintiffs’ state law tort claims and that such negligence claims “stem from motor vehicle accidents” so that they “are with respect to motor vehicles.” Judge Knepp held that:

The plain meaning of the words “safety regulatory authority of a State” does not support the inclusion of private tort claims. See United States ex rel. Felten v.William Beaumont Hosp., 993 F.3d 428, 431 (6th Cir. 2021) (courts “usually interpret a statute according to its plain meaning”). Additionally, if the safety exception preserved all claims related to motor vehicles, as urged by Plaintiffs and Miller, “all preempted claims would then be ‘saved’ by the exception.” Creagan, 354 F. Supp. 3d at 814. This would make the entirety of the preemption provision redundant. Rather, this Court finds “it cannot ignore the straightforward preemption analysis as laid out by the Supreme Court, and finds instructive the analysis in Rowe.” Volkova v. C.H. Robinson Co., 2018 WL 741441, at *4 (N.D. Ill.). To the eye of this Court, the FAAAA’s preemption provision protects precisely parties such as the shipper and broker, who did not have direct involvement in the accident that injured Plaintiffs. “Contrary to Plaintiff[s’] argument that a finding of preemption leaves her without a remedy, [they] may and [have] sought recourse against the carrier . . . and [the] driver”. Id. This Court therefore finds Plaintiffs’ claims are not encompassed by the safety exception.

While this is certainly positive news for the freight broker and shipping industries, we expect the plaintiffs in Lee to appeal this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. If the Sixth Circuit affirms Judge Knepp’s decision inLee, this could provide the circuit court split needed for the Supreme Court of the United States to review this issue.