Tort Liability of Owners/Operators of Commercial Motor Vehicles

Tort law is the branch of the legal system that deals with the liability of individuals or other legally recognized entities, such as corporations or governmental units, to compensate other persons for private injuries or wrongs not arising out of contractual relationships. The system of tort law, among other things, provides the underlying structure for the operation of those aspects of the business of motor vehicle insurance in the United States that relate to liability for loss or damage suffered by one party as a result of the ownership and operation of motor vehicles by other parties.

The potential tort liability of owners and operators of commercial motor vehicles implicates a number of unique legal issues. These range from some that are more obvious, such as the simple increase in the kinds and extent of risks of personal injury and property damage that arise from commercial vehicle use in contrast to the operation of private vehicles, the numbers of operators and numbers and types of vehicles involved in commercial activities, and the so-called “deep pockets” of business entities that make them more susceptible to having tort actions brought against them, to less immediately apparent matters such as the existence, in some jurisdictions, of a legal presumption, which would have to be affirmatively overcome by the persuasive evidence of a commercial vehicle owner, that the operator of a commercial vehicle is in fact the employee or agent of the owner at the time the vehicle is involved in an incident giving rise to potential tort liability.

For these and other reasons, the owners and operators of commercial motor vehicles normally seek to obtain sufficient amounts of insurance coverage, and the evaluation and payment of their tort claims, like those of private vehicle owners, are conducted under the motor vehicle insurance system. That system, like the entire business of insurance in the United States, has traditionally been regulated by the laws of the individual states rather than by a single unified body of federal law, and the answers to questions involving tort liability of commercial vehicle owners and operators and the insurance coverage on such tort claims will vary from state to state.