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National Freight Inc. v. Larson

decided: April 23, 1985.

NATIONAL FREIGHT, INC., DART TRANSIT COMPANY, OWENS-ILLINOIS, INC., CONTINENTAL CAN COMPANY, INC.
v.
THOMAS D. LARSON, SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION; DANIEL DUNN, COMMISSIONER OF PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE; LEROY S. ZIMMERMAN, ATTORNEY GENERAL; RICHARD THORNBURGH, GOVERNOR, APPELLANTS



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania - Scranton. D.C. Docket No. 83-1733.

Rosenn, Circuit Judge.

Author: Rosenn

Opinion OF THE COURT

ROSENN, Circuit Judge.

Historically, subject to the strictures of the commerce clause of the federal constitution, states have regulated the speed, safety and travel of vehicles on their public highways, including the regulation of truck size and the overall length of semi-trailer combinations. In 1982, Congress ventured into this area of highway regulation by enacting the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 (STAA), 49 U.S.C. § 2301 et seq., which addressed, and to some extent preempted state laws and regulations concerning, the size, weight, and configuration limits for tractor-trailers. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania thereupon amended its vehicle code in response to this new federal law, retaining an overall length limit of 60 feet on semi-combinations with trailers over 48 feet*fn1 on the "National Network"*fn2 and continuing to impose a 60-foot overall length limit regardless of trailer length on other roads. See 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 4923(a)(Purdon Supp. 1983-84).

Although both the federal and state statutes are, at least in part, intended to protect the safety of persons on the public highways, the construction by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania of Congress' legislation and a differing construction by truckers and shippers of goods produced a collision in views between the parties culminating in this litigation. The case raises important questions of statutory construction and the application of the supremacy clause of the federal constitution. The district court held that Pennsylvania's 60-foot overall length limitation conflicts with the STAA and that the federal prohibition of overall length limitations applies to all public highways within a state, not just those constituting the National Network. 583 F. Supp. 1461. We affirm as to the first issue, but reverse as to the second.

I.

Most states, acting under the police powers reserved to them by the Constitution, have regulated the overall length of semi-trailer combinations, the predominant limit being sixty feet. Pennsylvania truck size regulations conformed to the majority of the states. For example, on June 18, 1980, Pennsylvania amended its vehicle code by increasing the maximum allowable overall length of tractor-semi-trailer combinations from 55 to 60 feet. See Act 1980-68, June 18, P.L. 229, 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 4923(a) (Supp. 1983-84). Pennsylvania law did not regulate trailer length per se. However, by reason of the sixty foot overall length limitation, the statute put a practical limitation on trailer length at fifty-three feet, the smallest available tractor being seven feet long. At the time Pennsylvania amended its vehicle code in 1980, the federal government imposed no standards on either trailer or overall length.

When Congress passed the STAA in 1982, the Act in relevant part: (1) required the states to permit commercial motor vehicles consisting of 48-foot semi-trailers, or 28-foot twin trailers, on the National Network, see 49 U.S.C. §§ 2311(a) & (c); (2) forbade each state from prohibiting commercial motor vehicle semi-trailer and trailer lengths that had previously been legally operated in the state, see 49 U.S.C. § 2311(b); and (3) prohibited each state from imposing overall length limits on most commercial motor vehicles, including semi-trailer combinations, see 49 U.S.C. § 2311(b).*fn3

In response to the STAA, Pennsylvania amended its vehicle code. See 1983 Pa. Legis. Serv. 83 (Purdon) (Act No. 1983-19). On the National Network, Pennsylvania eliminated overall length limits on semi-combinations with trailers 48 feet or less in length, but retained an overall length limit of 60 feet on semi-combinations with trailers over 48 feet. See 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 4923(b)(6) (Supp. 1984-1985). On other roads, Pennsylvania imposed a 60-foot overall length limit regardless of trailer length. See 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 4923(a). The language of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 4923 is set out in the margin.*fn4

Plaintiffs, interstate shippers and carriers who desire to use 53-foot truck trailers throughout Pennsylvania without any limitations on the length of the truck tractor, brought suit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania claiming that the Pennsylvania legislation of 1983 is contrary to federal law and, therefore, violative of, inter alia, the supremacy clause and commerce clause of the federal constitution. Prior to the passage of the STAA, plaintiffs had legally operated, or made use of, 53-foot trailers in Pennsylvania. Pursuant to Pennsylvania law, however, these trailers were operated within a 60-foot overall length limit. Thus, the length of the trailer plus the tractor did not exceed 60 feet. Plaintiffs now desire to use 53-foot trailers both on and off the National Network without any restrictions as to overall length, and they contend that the STAA requires Pennsylvania to permit such operations. The parties entered into a stipulation of facts after which each side moved for summary judgment. Plaintiffs' motion was limited to their claim under the supremacy clause.

On April 12, 1984, the district court granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment.*fn5 The district court held, first, that Pennsylvania's 60-foot overall length limitation conflicts with the STAA and therefore was improper, even as applied to vehicles with trailers longer than 48 feet that are operating under the grandfather clause of the STAA, 49 U.S.C. § 2311(b). The court then held that the provision in subsection (b) of section 411 of the STAA (49 U.S.C. § 2311(b)), prohibiting overall length limitations, applied to all roadways within a state, not just those constituting the National Network. In so holding, the court declared sections 4923(a) and 4923(b)(6) of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code violative of the supremacy clause. The district court, and subsequently this court, denied a motion for partial stay pending appeal.

Subsequent to the district court's decision, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) promulgated a "final rule" which interpreted the STAA in the manner advocated by the defendants herein and contrary to the decision of the district court. The FHWA interpreted the STAA to mean that states could impose overall length limits on the National Network for tractor-trailers with trailers longer than 48 feet, if the states imposed overall length limits prior to enactment of the law. Moreover, the FHWA concluded that states were free to impose any overall length limits on highways other than those constituting the National Network. See 49 Fed. Reg. 23,302 (1984). ...


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