The U.S. Court of Appeals has sided with a truck driver who was fired after abandoning his trailer on the side of the road after his brake lines froze and the heater in his truck stopped working during sub-zero weather conditions.
Alphonse Maddin was working as a truck driver for TransAm Trucking, Inc. in 2009 when the incident occurred.
Driver Stranded With Frozen Brake Lines, Almost No Fuel, No Heater
According to court documents, Maddin was driving on I-88 in Illinois with a fuel meter below empty. He wasn’t able to locate a TransAm approved fueling station, so he pulled over on the side of the road. When he started the truck back up ten minutes later, he discovered his brake lines were frozen.
He reportedly contacted TransAm about the problem and was told to stay put and that a technician was on the way. It was then that Maddin discovered that his bunk heater wasn’t working.
Driver’s Physical Condition Threatened By Freezing Temperatures
Maddin fell asleep while waiting for the technician and was only awakened because his cousin called him. Maddin said he was numb and couldn’t feel his feet and the cousin reported that his speech was slurred.
The court documents say that Maddin called the road assist dispatcher to report on his physical condition but was told to stay put.
After half an hour in the cold and no sign of the repairman, Maddin detached the trailer and called his supervisor to advise him on his physical condition. Maddin was told he could drive off with the trailer or wait for the technician, but that he must not abandon the trailer.
Maddin chose to abandon the trailer.
When the technician finally showed up 15 minutes after he had driven away from the trailer, Maddin returned to it and his truck was repaired.
Trucker Fired For Abandoning His Load
Maddin was fired within the week for abandoning his load.
Maddin filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA. The complaint was initially dismissed, so Maddin requested a hearing with a U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge (ALJ).
Courts Side With Trucker
The ALJ sided with Maddin because he reported the incident to TransAm and found that he was right in refusing to operate a motor vehicle with safety issues.
TransAm attempted to appeal the court’s decision but was denied.
The court ordered that TransAm give Maddin backpay and reinstate him.
While frozen brakes are not a type of mechanical failure that is protected by the whistleblower provision of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, the court’s decision is considered to be a warning to employers about the broadening stance on the statute: “Because the trailer was inoperable and the driver drove off without it, the driver could not have refused to ‘operate’ in unsafe conditions, but, rather he abandoned company property. Clearly, the agency thought this driver was terminated unfairly, and expanded its interpretation of the statute to allow him to pursue a claim.”