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Bum Steer

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."

When he got in, the company had another load ready to go. He refused. Pat Boyer, he says, then told him to turn in his company credit card and the keys to his truck.

Howard was out of work with a sick wife. He now had to pay the entire premium to continue on the company's insurance policy, but he couldn't find a decent job. Veteran drivers must be able to prove that they worked in the past three years (drivers with no experience must ride with someone else to get the experience). But every time a prospective employer called Mountain City Meat, according to Howard's statement in the court documents, they were told that Howard had never worked for the company. "Bam! Right off the bat they'd think I was lying, and there'd go the job," says Howard. Even when he found work, his wife wasn't covered by his insurance benefits because of her pre-existing medical condition.

The Cobbs could no longer afford their apartment, so Marion had to move in with her daughter, Angie, who quit her job to care for her mother. They sold their furniture. Marion sold her jewels, some of which were heirlooms. But the hardest to part with were her prize Pomeranian dogs.

"We sold them to a woman in Limon," Marion says. "Actually, she could only afford one, but we didn't want to break them up, so we gave her the other one."

"That was real hard," says Howard. "I loved them dogs."
In June 1995 Howard went to Mountain City Meat to beg for his job back. Pat Boyer agreed, Howard says, but told him he would have to sign a paper saying that he wouldn't seek insurance benefits for two years.

"Basically, they just wanted him to wait until I died," Marion says.
Desperate, Howard agreed, but with one stipulation: fewer hours.
"They said, 'Don't worry, we won't run you more than 3,000 miles a week,'" Howard recalls. "The next ten weeks they ran me 46,000 miles."

Then, in August 1995, just after Marion had undergone chemotherapy, Howard was sacked again. Pat Boyer had asked him to drive, but Howard wanted a few days off until Marion could get her strength back. He didn't have the hours left on his logbook to drive legally, anyway.

"He said, 'This is ridiculous. People die, you know,'" Howard recalls. "I wanted to punch him out, but going to jail wouldn't have helped Marion none."

(Pat Boyer has declined to answer questions from Westword regarding his personal conversations with Howard Cobb. His attorney, Friedman, says the Cobbs' portrayal of the reasons for his termination--refusing to drive excessive hours and Marion's medical bills--is "absolutely inaccurate and incorrect.")

Howard says he refused the run and was fired. When he went to collect unemployment, he discovered that the company was contesting his claim, saying he was terminated for refusing to follow directions. The unemployment hearing officer ruled that the company had fired him because he refused to break the federal transportation laws.

The unemployment checks hardly covered the Cobbs' insurance premiums. And then this past spring, Mountain City refused to accept the Cobbs' premium payment, claiming it was late, and canceled the couple's policy with the trucking company's insurance provider.

Reluctantly, the Cobbs hired lawyers to sue Mountain City Meat. "We've never sued anybody in our lives," Marion says. "When a drunk driver hit our daughter, we didn't even consider it, we were just so happy that she was alive."

One of their attorneys, Ron Podboy, agrees that they're not the suing type. "A lot of people want us to sue for them. The way things are anymore, it's looked at as like winning the lottery," Podboy, a former prosecutor, says. "But the Cobbs are embarrassed about having to do this. He's just a hardworking good ol' boy, and she probably won't even live long enough to get to trial."

The road to a trial has been rough enough. Pat Boyer has argued in court through his lawyer that Howard technically never worked for Mountain City Meat but that he worked for Preferred Distribution Inc.; therefore, he has contended, Mountain City Meat was not liable for whatever may or may not have happened to the Cobbs. But the Cobbs' attorneys argued that Preferred is only a shell of a company, run by Boyer. As proof, Howard produced his W-2 income-tax statements from Mountain City Meat, more than thirty paycheck stubs drawn from a Mountain City Meat account, and a letter from American Medical Security stating that Howard Cobb was a covered employee for Mountain City Meat. The judge decided the lawsuit could go forward.

Mountain City Meat still, however, is pressing the argument. Pat Boyer told Westword that Howard did drive for his company, but Boyer referred all other questions to Friedman, "because I know how things get twisted."

Friedman describes Preferred as "a totally separate and independent company" that hires drivers and leases them to Mountain City Meat. Pat Boyer, he said, is the president of Mountain City Meat, and his brother, Mike Boyer, is the president of Preferred. However, according to the Colorado Secretary of State's office, Pat Boyer is listed as president of both companies; his brother is listed as the vice president of Preferred. Friedman does say that the debate over whether Howard was employed by Mountain Meat or Preferred "is a question the court will have decide." He also couldn't say which company paid the insurance premiums, adding, "That's another question. We're still in the discovery process."

The Cobbs' other attorney, Michael O'Malley, notes that according to insurance company papers, although Preferred allegedly leases the drivers to Mountain City Meat, the latter "does all the hiring and firing. And that," O'Malley says, "is a single company under anybody's definition."

The trial has been set for February 10, 1997. The Cobbs are asking for $225,000 in damages and $250,000 more in punitive damages for emotional and physical stress. In the meantime, Howard has found work with another trucking company, Ridge Carriers, which he says is strict about not allowing drivers to violate regulations. But Marion, because of her pre-existing condition, is not eligible for Howard's insurance benefits. Her bills are now being covered by Medicaid.

"But to qualify," O'Malley says, "she had to legally separate from her husband.