Message from the President
Private right of action:
Four little words, enormous impact

By Jim Johnston, OOIDA president and CEO

While we know that the cases that are easiest to win are the ones that don’t go to court, sometimes it’s necessary to fight for your rights in the legal arena.

In the mid-1990s, OOIDA was fighting tooth and nail to push for the enactment of a statutory private right of action allowing owner-operators to seek enforcement of the truth-in-leasing regs directly in federal court.

Keep in mind that in the days of the Interstate Commerce Commission, you couldn’t even take your leasing complaint to court. There was only one place to go and faced with increasingly diminishing resources, the regulatory authorities were less than effective in enforcing the leasing regs.

If an owner-operator had a grievance with a carrier over leasing regs, you filed a complaint and then waited, in most cases for years, for the ICC to make a determination. It was a system that allowed carriers to do whatever they wanted to their owner-operators. It was take it or leave it. And the owner-operator, because he liked to eat, mostly was left with no option but to take it.

The ICC was abolished in 1995. Protections for owner-operators had to be established, and we knew it was time to strike. We lobbied hard to keep the leasing rules and for a “private right of action” provision to be included in the ICC sunset legislation, and we were successful.

The ICC Termination Act – effective Jan. 1, 1996 – created a private right of action in 49 U.S.C. § 14704(a)(2) for violations of the Truth-in-Leasing regulations.

With a private right of action, an owner-operator would be able to sue a carrier for damages arising from the violations of the leasing regulations, as well as attorney fees. OOIDA hoped this would force unscrupulous carriers to play by the rules.

The Act was challenged, of course, by big-business carriers who were ready to dig in their heels to keep the playing field from being leveled.

This happened the first time the Association exercised the right to take a carrier to court. In fact, it was two lawsuits against two different carriers. Those carriers – joined by the American Trucking Associations – insisted that disputes must go to the Federal Highway Administration. The FHWA, represented by the Department of Justice, said it was not their job and that the ICCTA intended for owner-operators to have the right to take their disputes to court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit agreed.

Winning the right to sue was a huge victory for us, and those two carriers – New Prime Inc. and Arctic Express – were the first two to meet truckers face-to-face in the court room.

Today, we estimate that more than a dozen courts have upheld the private right of action.

OOIDA v. Arctic Express was first initiated in June of 1997. The Arctic case has twisted and turned its way through the court system, becoming OOIDA v. Comerica Bank. It’s a case that has won victories, overcome obstacles, and only recently is nearing completion 15 years later.

Through the years, OOIDA has spent millions on court battles to force motor carriers to abide by the letter and the intent of the truth-in-leasing regs. Had the Association not succeeded in getting the right to do that into law, we could not have proceeded with the Comerica case we just won and with other class actions.

Armed with the private right of action and a litigation fund larger than any single owner-operator could muster, the Association has taken on more than 20 carriers, one by one, often in large class action suits. Each case has strengthened individual truckers’ rights to stand up against ruthless, unprincipled carriers – large and small – and it continues to be our most important instrument in obtaining relief against those who have blatant disregard for the rules.

Private right of action … four little words that have had an enormous impact on the ability of motor carriers to openly and deliberately violate leasing regulations. LL