LAKELAND, Fla. - Widespread fraud on driver logs, a culture of illegally bypassing weigh stations, and lack of proper training for drivers hauling hazmat are among allegations recently made by whistleblowers at Davis Transfer, a major hauling company with offices in Lakeland.
And they could be added to a wrongful death lawsuit as well.
Following a fiery April accident on I-4 in Lakeland that claimed the life of Marva Jean Daniels, 63, several drivers from the at-fault company, Davis Transfer, contacted the 10 News Investigators. Their claims -- backed up by several complaints to Florida Highway Patrol -- described a culture of safety violations and disregard for laws governing the trucking industry.
Drivers, who asked for identity protection because they feared retaliation at work, said their concerns about safety were brought to managers' attention on several occasions prior to the fatal April accident, but policies never changed. Drivers who complained about the pressure to break the law were penalized with less work, and, thus, less compensation.
"It was just a matter of time," one driver said of the fatal accident. "Because we know what goes on here...we were told, on more than one occasion 'You can be replaced.'"
"People can get killed if you don't follow the rules," another driver said. "We're talking 80,000-lb. machines that cannot stop on (a) dime."
While the whistleblowers said they had no knowledge if safety oversights had anything to do with the accident that claimed Daniels' life, Florida Highway Patrol indicated the driver, Michael Casey Cross, 35, was distracted by an electronic device (i.e. cell phone). Federal law prohibits truckers from using hand-held devices while behind the wheel, so while FHP works on its final investigative report on the collision, surviving members of Daniels' family have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Cross and Davis Transfer.
Davis Transfer declined comment on any of the allegations about the safety culture because they may come up in the pending litigation. The company, headquartered in Carnesville, Ga., with a regional office in Lakeland, has until the end of May to respond to the wrongful death complaint.
But attorneys for Daniels' family said they already have more than enough evidence to prove negligence at the accident scene. Cross rear-ended Daniels' Ford Focus while she was exiting the highway and he was entering it. And the attorneys expect to uncover more evidence when FHP releases its full crash investigation, likely in June.
"Our (potential) concerns with the company are concerns that we've (seen) before with trucking cases," said Maria Tejedor, the lawyer representing Daniels' family. "(Companies) overwork these truck drivers, they don't train them appropriately, that they don't provide them with the help and assistance that they need."
Drivers told FHP and 10 News that they are routinely instructed by Lakeland dispatch to go "off-duty" while loading and unloading their trucks. It helps drivers avoid crossing their federally-mandated 70-hour-maximum work weeks. However, federal guidelines are clear that loading and unloading time is to be counted as "on-duty" working time.
The whistleblowers said when they would input their electronic driver logs correctly managers at Davis Transfer would illegally alter them to "allow" more working hours.
FHP has cited the company for problems before. Recently, a warning was issued to the company for too many driver hour violations.
Drivers also reported that Davis Transfer trucks are often over their 80,000-lb. limit while driving the highways of Florida and Georgia, making deliveries for companies like Zephyrhills Water and Publix. Davis Transfer has been cited 197 times in Georgia and Florida alone for overweight trucks the last 17 months.
The company has also been cited by the U.S. Department of Transportation 22 times over the past two years for fatigued driver violations, 41 times for unsafe driver violations, and 167 times for vehicle maintenance violations. All measures -- as well as "driver fitness" and "controlled substance" measures -- are considered satisfactory by DOT standards.
One driver's complaint to FHP also indicated drivers didn't have proper authority to be transporting hazardous materials. The DOT indicated Davis Trucking needed to provide training for drivers who transport any amount of hazmat, but drivers interviewed by 10 News said there was none.
The drivers also said the system of federal and state oversight over truckers is flawed, since most fines come out of the drivers' pockets, rather than the companies that oversee them. So despite pressure from Davis Transfer, it's often the employees who get stuck with fines from illegal trucking.
The whistleblowers say they and other drivers at Davis Transfer's Lakeland office are trying to land jobs at new companies because they've finally had enough disregard for the law...and of motorists' safety.
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