President Donald Trump's pick for the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, was asked on March 21 about a case that he ruled on involving a truck driver who left a broken-down trailer to avoid freezing to death (video below).
Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota brought up the so-called "Frozen Trucker" case during Gorsuch's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, reports Democracy Now.
The case, TransAm Trucking v. Administrative Review Board, was about a trucker named Alphonse Maddin who was employed by TransAm, reports Slate.
During one of his hauls in below zero temperatures in January 2009, Maddin found that the trailer’s brakes had locked up because of the frigid weather. Maddin called TransAm’s for assistance at 11:17 p.m.
During an event for Senate Democrats earlier in the week, Maddin recalled what happened next:
I expected that help would arrive within an hour. I awoke three hours later to discover that I could not feel my feet, my skin was burning and cracking, my speech was slurred, and I was having trouble breathing.
The temperature that night was roughly 27 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The heater in the cabin was not producing heat, and the temperature gage in the truck was reading minus 7 degrees below zero.
After informing my employer of my physical condition, they responded by telling me to simply hang in there. As I sat there physically suffering in the cold, I started having thoughts that I was going to die. My physical condition was fading rapidly.
After waiting another 30 minutes, Maddin decided to unhitch the trailer, and drove off in the truck, leaving the disabled trailer behind. TransAm road service arrived at the scene about 15 minutes after Maddin left, reported Slate.
TransAm fired Maddin, and he subsequently filed a complaint against TransAm with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violating part of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, which does not allow companies to fire a worker who "refuses to operate a vehicle because ... the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public."
TransAm insisted that Maddin did operate his truck, and so he was not protected by that part of the law.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Maddin, but Gorsuch, who was part of the court, dissented in favor of TransAm in his ruling, noted CNN:
A trucker was stranded on the side of the road, late at night, in cold weather, and his trailer brakes were stuck. He called his company for help and someone there gave him two options. He could drag the trailer carrying the company’s goods to its destination (an illegal and maybe sarcastically offered option).
Or he could sit and wait for help to arrive (a legal if unpleasant option). The trucker chose None of the Above, deciding instead to unhook the trailer and drive his truck to a gas station.
It might be fair to ask whether TransAm's decision was a wise or kind one. But it's not our job to answer questions like that. Our only task is to decide whether the decision was an illegal one.
During the committee hearing, Franken asked Gorsuch: "There were two safety issues here: one, the possibility of freezing to death, or driving with that rig in a very dangerous way. Which would you have chosen? Which would you have done, judge?"
Gorsuch replied, "Oh, Senator, I don’t know what I would have done if I were in his shoes, and I don’t blame him at all, for a moment, for doing what he did do ... I empathize with him entirely."
Franken pushed for an answer: "OK, we’ve been talking about this case. You haven’t decided what you would have done? You haven’t thought about, for a second, what you would have done in his case?"
Gorsuch said that he had thought "a lot about this case," and Franken asked him again what he would have done.
"Senator, I don’t know," Gorsuch replied. "I wasn’t in the man’s shoes. But I understand why he did."
Franken then told Gorsuch what he would have done:
You don’t know what you would have done. OK, I’ll tell you what I would have done. I would have done exactly what he did. And I think everybody here would have done exactly what he did...
It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die possibly by driving an unsafe vehicle.
That’s absurd. Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it. And it makes me question your judgment.