Article by David R. Chludzinski, Esq.
For most companies in the commercial trucking industry, managing safety and managing costs are two key priorities. Managing costs and safety makes compliance with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) a top priority as well. Not only can FMCSR violations create significant safety and liability risks for truck drivers and trucking companies, but they can also lead to fines, increased insurance rates and other unwanted expenditures that can raise the cost of doing business. Moreover, in civil litigation, many plaintiff’s counsel will attempt to use a company’s safety score to support a claim for corporate negligence or even to assert a punitive damages claim.
Due to these concerns, when a driver or company receives a violation or citation from a state enforcement agency or the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the company should promptly consider its options for challenging the violation or citation and, if necessary, submit a request for review through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) DataQs system. Successfully challenging an FMCSR violation can also ensure that the company maintains an accurate and favorable Company Snapshot and Company Safety Profile (CSP) which can be critical to avoiding unnecessary operational costs.
5 Reasons Why it May Be Necessary to Challenge a Citation or Submit a Request for Review in DataQs
While many citations for FMCSR violations are valid, some are not. When your company or one of your drivers receives a citation or violation of any FMCSAs, it is important to promptly assess whether it is necessary to dispute the violation and correct the record. Some of the most common examples of invalid grounds for FMCSR citations include the following scenarios:
- The crash that triggered the citation is not required to be recorded with the DOT because it did not result in substantial property damage, significant injury or death.
- The citation references a “missing” roadside inspection report that your company possesses but that the officer or inspector could not locate in the FMCSA’s data.
- The citation references a purported violation that is not actually a violation of the FMCSR (such as failing to transfer data with an AOBRD system).
- The citation references a violation that is more severe than the violation actually committed (i.e., your driver was improperly cited for a violation that triggers out-of-service placement when less points are warranted).
- The citation is for a driver or truck that is not in your company’s fleet.
This list is not exhaustive since the complexity of, and frequent revisions to, the FMCSR mean that officers and inspectors are prone to making a variety of mistakes when issuing citations. Unless you are absolutely certain that a citation is valid (both in terms of referencing relevant conduct and a relevant provision of the FMCSR), any citation your company receives should be reviewed to determine whether a challenge or Request for Data Review (RDR) in DataQs is warranted. In fact, many citations should be challenged as, for any number of reasons, the citation could be ruled invalid or reduced by a judge at a hearing.
3 Ways to Challenge Invalid FMCSR Citations
Three primary options are available when challenging invalid FMCSR citations.
1. Submit a challenge to the agency that issued the citation – This process typically involves identifying and contacting the officer or inspector who issued the citation, attempting to resolve the issue informally (i.e., by explaining the mistake that was made) and then submitting a formal challenge according to the agency’s specific procedures if necessary. If this challenge is successful, then the agency is required to submit a correction to the FMCSA. The correction may not be immediate and follow-up may be necessary.
2. Challenge the citation in court – If your driver or company receives a formal citation (as opposed to a warning), then you have the ability to go to court and argue that the citation should be dismissed or reduced. If the result is a not guilty finding or dismissed, the points will be removed. If a citation is reduced, then by law the offense is required to be submitted to the FMCSA as a one-point Compliance, Safety and Accountability (CSA) violation.
3. Submit an RDR to the FMCSA through the DataQs system – Filing an RDR in DataQs can be quicker than attempting to resolve the issue with the citing agency directly, and it can be more cost-effective than challenging a citation in court. The DataQs system automatically forwards the request to the appropriate agency, and a successful request for review through DataQs results in automatic correction of the record. For these reasons, using the DataQs system will often be the preferred solution for correcting the FMCSA’s records and updating a Company Snapshot and CSP.
When challenging an FMCSR citation through any of these three methods, below are several important considerations that commercial trucking companies should keep in mind.
- Make Sure You Know the FMCSRs – When challenging alleged FMCSR violations, it is important to be selective. All challenges are reviewed by agency personnel and a practice of challenging all citations and warnings regardless of their validity will be viewed unfavorably. When submitting a challenge or filing an RDR, companies should be as specific and detailed as possible so that no room is left for interpretation.
- Include Supporting Documentation – The easier you can make it for someone to decide to overturn or reduce a citation, the better. All challenges and RDRs should be accompanied by adequate supporting documentation, including a copy of the vehicle examination report which can be obtained through the DataQs system.
- Seek Professional Help – Whether you are asking an officer or inspector to reconsider his or her own determination or you are challenging an FMCSR citation in court, it is best to seek professional assistance. Your arguments must be convincing and it is important to avoid racking up unsuccessful challenges which could substantially impact your company’s finances over time. The attorneys at Burns White LLC have extensive experience helping commercial trucking companies avoid points and penalties in agency proceedings, court proceedings and DataQs RDRs. Contact us to learn more.