Liability: Does Illness Absolve Carrier in Wreck?

Liability: Does Illness Absolve Carrier in Wreck?

Q: We recently lost a shipment in a truck wreck. The truck crashed into a highway bridge support when the driver lost control.

When we filed a claim with the carrier, it was declined. The carrier’s claims manager explained that the driver was a diabetic who had what’s called an “insulin reaction,” causing him to pass out at the wheel. He said therefore the wreck was due to an “act of God,” meaning the carrier isn’t responsible for cargo damage.

This doesn’t make sense to me. I’m sorry the driver has a health problem (he survived the accident with only minor injuries), but shouldn’t the carrier be liable for the cargo anyway? I was always taught the carrier has that liability even when it’s not at fault, and I’m pretty unhappy that this one won’t pay.

A: You raise an excellent point — but one that, I’m sorry to say, has no clear answer.

To explain briefly, insulin is the hormone required to break down sugar in the digestive tract. Most of us produce it naturally in response to sugar ingestion; diabetics don’t produce it (or at least enough of it) and have to supplement with pills or injections. When the pills/shots exceed sugar consumption, they leave too little sugar in the body, which can cause problems, including loss of consciousness — as apparently happened in this case.

The carrier’s argument is that the wreck was caused by the driver’s illness, with which I can’t disagree. But it goes further to define that illness as an “act of God” — one of the basic exceptions to the rule that carriers are absolutely liable for goods in their custody — which is open for debate.

Courts in several cases have held that illness on the part of a vehicle operator does qualify as an “act of God.” See, e.g., Edison v. Mathews, 172 S.E.2d 144; McClean v. C.G. W. Ry. Co., 121 N.E.2d 337; Far Eastern Silo Corp. v. M/V Bayou Piquant, 2000 WL 1457007; and others.
The trouble is, all the cases I’ve unearthed make this determination in conjunction with claims arising on the basis of carrier (operator) fault.

Carrier liability for lost/damaged cargo, however, doesn’t repose on fault. Does the same definition apply?

I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that in law, it’s the carrier’s burden to prove its contention. Once you show the goods were lost or damaged in the carrier’s possession and that you suffered economic injury thereby, the carrier must prove it’s not liable; M. P. R. Co. v. Elmore & Stahl, 337 U.S. 134 (1964), reh. den. 377 U.S. 948.

So if there’s enough money at stake to warrant action, I’d pursue your claim and let the carrier make its argument in court.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, (843) 559-1277; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the 536-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2001, at $80 plus shipping.