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Bum Steer

A trucker's wife battles cancer while he battles his former company.

Howard Cobb drove trucks for nearly thirty years without an accident. His wife, Marion, worked as a bookkeeper, raised their three kids and kept the home fires burning.

Three years ago he landed his best-paying job ever, making on-time deliveries crisscrossing the country for Mountain City Meat Co. Inc. of Denver. Then his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he says the company has treated them like a side of beef ever since.

Now the Cobbs are suing. They contend that Howard was fired, twice, for refusing to continue violating federal driving regulations and because Marion's illness cost the meat-processing company too much money.

The company denies those allegations and has contended that Howard Cobb technically didn't even work for Mountain City Meat, an argument that particularly riles the Cobbs. Howard says he applied to and was hired by Mountain City Meat in August 1993. His routes stretched from coast to coast and points in between. The only problem, he says, was that the company expected its drivers to put in far too many hours on the road, in violation of U.S. Department of Transportation regulations.

It's hard enough to make a living in the trucking industry without fudging at least a little on the federal limits: no more than ten hours a day of driving--fifteen hours total including "on duty not driving" items like unloading--followed by eight hours of rest. Or, seventy hours of driving, total, in an eight-day period. Companies whose drivers violate the regulations are subject to fines; drivers can be fined and arrested.

Drivers routinely violate the regulations, according to a recent Department of Transportation report. With perishable goods, like meat products, the need for speed is even greater. To get around it, Howard, like others, acknowledges that he illegally kept more than one of the logbooks that supposedly details every hour of a trip, including downtime. Drivers can be required to show the log if requested at a weigh station or if pulled over by a cop. Howard kept three.

The money was good--as much as $1,700 a week, he says, compared with $1,000 if he had followed the rules. In his fifties, he needed the extra money to put toward retirement, and there was always the opportunity for some guy who busted his butt for a couple of years to eventually get out of the truck and into a job as a dispatcher. Still, it was too much. Mountain City Meat had him running trips back to back to back, rarely with any more time off than it took to load and unload, he says. He was concerned about the risk he was beginning to pose to other motorists.

Howard contends that he talked about the excessive hours with company president Pat Boyer but was ignored. According to Howard's affidavit filed with the court in support of the lawsuit, Boyer would have drivers sign papers stating that they were following federal regulations. "Basically to cover their asses," Howard says.

The company's attorney, Sheldon Friedman, says Howard was never asked to violate federal trucking regulations. But the lawsuit contends that Mountain City Meat knew its drivers were exceeding the regulations, because the company pays for mileage and knows how long its drivers are on the road.

The Cobbs' situation took a fatal turn when, on March 3, 1994, Marion was diagnosed with lung cancer. The doctors said it would kill her in two years.

Marion's skyrocketing medical bills were paid by the company's insurance carrier, American Medical Security of Milwaukee. Like many other working people, Howard paid part of the premium and Mountain City Meat paid the rest. But as Marion's bills mounted, Howard noticed, so did the hours Mountain City Meat expected him to be on the road.

The explanation for the increased travel soon became apparent, Howard argues in his court affidavit, when Pat Boyer complained to him that Marion Cobb's medical bills had caused the company's insurance rates to jump $22,000. Howard says Boyer wanted to change to a cheaper insurance company but couldn't because of Marion's pre-existing condition. There are other witnesses who will testify to overhearing Pat Boyer complain about Marion Cobb's medical bills, according to the court documents.

The company's response, the Cobbs say, was to step up Howard's driving time. "I was driving twenty hours a day, seven days a week," Howard says. "If I got a day off, and that wasn't often, it would be like Saturday, and they'd have me back out again Sunday morning."

Others noticed, too. At a weigh station in Nebraska, an official called him on his faked logbooks. "Look, I see you in here all the time," Howard recalls the official saying to him. "I know this truck. Let me put it this way: I don't want to see you again until you can show me a legitimate logbook."

In January 1995, two weeks after his run-in with the Nebraska official, Howard says, he was on his way back from Altoona, Pennsylvania, when he told the company dispatcher not to schedule him for any more trips until he caught up on some rest. "I was worn out. It was only a matter of time before I fell asleep and killed somebody," he says. "I told dispatch that I would need at least a week to even be eligible to be back on the road."

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