Aug. 23, 2006 - Using a PG-rated version of a bumper sticker expression, a communication expert explained to jurors this week why certain terms on truckers' DAC reports are virtually meaningless.
"(That) would be like the phrase 'stuff happens' " said expert witness Edward Schiappa when explaining how the term "cargo loss" - as it is defined by DAC - is so broad that it has no real meaning.
The testimony Monday from Schiappa, a professor at the University of Minnesota and chairman of the schools' Department of Communications, came during the first day of a federal trial involving USIS Commercial Services Inc., which does business as DAC Services.
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association filed the civil suit against DAC in U.S. District Court in Denver on behalf of truckers who say they have basically been blackballed by negative DAC reports. According to information from USIS/DAC, the company has employment histories for more than 2,500 motor carrier clients with more than 4.7 million individual drivers' records in its database.
When it initially filed the lawsuit in July 2004, OOIDA officials said that the inaccurate DAC reports were hurting both truckers and motor carriers by artificially decreasing the number of so-called eligible drivers in the industry. The suit seeks to have DAC stop using its current forms and its vague, ambiguous and inaccurate terms to describe truckers' work histories - which are often compiled and sold without truckers' permission.
According to the trial transcript, the DAC glossary definition for "cargo loss" is: "Cargo was lost, stolen, damaged or destroyed while assigned to or under direct responsibility of the driver." On the DAC Termination Record Form, a motor carrier simply indicates "yes" or "no" regarding cargo loss.
Schiappa testified that using DAC's definition, "cargo loss" could be anything from one box of pencils to an entire load of high-dollar cargo.
"So you don't know whether it was lost, stolen or damaged ... You don't know the value of the loss, whether it was a dime or a million dollars.
"And you don't know how to attribute fault for the loss," Schiappa said, explaining that there is also no way to tell if it was a one-time cargo loss due to a tornado, or a chronic pattern of repeated cargo losses due to unsafe driving.
Schiappa testified that he reviewed 17 terms in the DAC glossary that are routinely used to report truckers' work history. Of those 17, he said eight were "really really bad and nine are problematic" as accurate communication tools.
Adding to the problem, Schiappa said, is that several of the terms are defined with "circular definitions."
"That is to say that they don't actually define the term, they basically restate the phrase in usually very similar language," Schiappa said, adding that circular definitions do not aid or clarify communication, but in fact make it impossible to communicate accurately.
Another DAC definition that many truckers have complained about through the years is that of "company policy violation."
"This one was my favorite, or least favorite, in terms of the kind of problems with it because I thought it was so remarkably vague," Schiappa testified.
"And in fact, in terms of the definition, ... 'driver violated company policies and/or procedures' actually makes it broader that the category label itself ... I described this as saying someone sinned, but you have no idea what the sin was ... So denotatively, it is vacuous."
Schiappa discussed several of the other terms under direct examination by OOIDA's lead attorney Randall Herrick-Stare and was then turned over to DAC's lawyer, John K. Burkhardt, for cross examination.
During that cross examination, Burkhardt repeatedly attempted to put words in Schiappa's mouth, but the former debate coach didn't take the bait. Literally dozens of times Burkhardt attempted to trip the communication expert into contradicting himself or testifying to facts he was not privy to - 25 times in the first half of the cross examination alone.
On try No. 13, Burkhardt asked Schiappa "isn't it true, professor, that you don't know of a single instance in which two motor carriers failed to communicate with each other about the meaning of the notation or phrase on TRF (a Termination Record Form)?"
The communication expert stood his ground.
"Every time certain categories are used, there is failure to communicate accurately," Schiappa responded.
On try No. 21 to trip the expert, Burkhardt's strategy appeared to backfire. The DAC lawyer was trying to point out that more specific descriptions would take more time on the carriers' part and that would be a financial hardship.
In answering the question, Schiappa said that more accurate DAC reports would actually help motor carriers.
"I don't have, frankly, an educated opinion on that except I would say that it is the carriers who would benefit in the long run from having better communication on this," Schiappa said.
Testimony in the case continues Thursday and again next week. OOIDA's legal team expects to rest its case Monday, Aug. 28. The DAC lawyers will then have their turn. Judge Blackburn has cleared his calendar through Thursday of Labor Day week, but once the case goes to the jury, no one knows how long they will deliberate.
- By Coral Beach, staff editor
Editor's note: Information for this story came from the court reporter's transcript.