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Establishing Vicarious Liability for Crash on Theory of Respondeat Superior

Most car accident lawsuits are a simple matter of proving negligence, shown by establishing:

  • Duty owed to plaintiff (i.e., duty to other motorists to obey laws and act in a reasonably prudent manner);
  • Breach of duty (carelessness or violation of law);
  • Causation (breach of duty caused the accident);
  • Damages (plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the accident).personal injury lawyer

However, there are some Florida auto accident cases that delve into more complex areas of law because they involve a negligent driver who was either on-the-job or at least furthering an employer’s business at the time of the crash. In these cases, the employer can be held vicariously liable for the worker’s negligence. This means plaintiff doesn’t have to prove employer was negligent, only that worker was in fact an employee (as opposed to an independent contractor) and was acting in the scope of employment when crash occurred. This legal theory is referred to as “respondeat superior,” which is Latin for “Let the master answer.”

If there is evidence an employer was negligent also (i.e., negligent hiring, negligent retention, negligent supervision, negligent vehicle maintenance, etc.), the company could be found both directly and vicariously liable. A skilled personal injury attorney in Fort Myers can help you sort out the type of case you have and identify all potential defendants. 

One recent case out of California (a state that also recognizes the doctrine of respondeat superior) reveals how these are not always straightforward matters.

According to records from the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Four, the question here was whether a negligent employee (those facts were established) was acting in the scope of employment or whether the “coming-and-going” rule was applicable. The coming-and-going rule is most often seen in workers’ compensation cases, but it refers to the fact that workers are generally not deemed to be acting within the scope of employment when they are commuting to or from work. When the coming-and-going rule applies, companies can’t be liable to cover the cost of an employee’s negligence (either for workers’ compensation or third-party negligence claims).

The crash in question occurred around 3:30 a.m. on a California highway. Employee, a pharmaceutical manufacturer technician, collided with another vehicle, killing a passenger in the other vehicle. The employee gave several conflicting reasons for why he was on the road that night. He told the investigating officer he was driving to his work on his night off to collect resumes for upcoming interviews. He explained to the officer he worked the night shift, but he was off that night. A fellow employee later testified defendant employee told him he was going to the office to do “something important for work.” Then during his deposition, defendant said he intended to stop at the office to obtain old resumes and personal belongings from his locker on the way to visit his sick grandmother.

Other evidence tended to show all employee’s work-related duties were performed on site during work hours. (That doesn’t mean liability would be impossible, but one would have to show a special errand exception in vicarious liability claims involving “fixed” jobs like this.) The company also showed it did not own the vehicle defendant was driving, nor did it at any point require him to drive a vehicle or compensate him for work-related travel expenses. There was also no evidence defendant was working (i.e., answering work-related emails, scheduling interviews, answering calls, etc.) on the night in question.

Plaintiffs alleged both the driver and driver’s employee were liable based on the doctrine of respondeat superior. Company moved for summary judgment, citing the coming-and-going rule, and trial judge granted that motion. Plaintiffs appealed. The appellate court, however, affirmed. The scope of employment is interpreted broadly under the respondeat superior doctrine in that state (which allows acts for an employee’s comfort or convenience at work, where an employee is tending to his own business at the same time as that of his employer, don’t necessarily remove the worker from the scope of employment). However in this case, the court ruled, there was no substantial evidence the worker was on-the-clock, driving a company car, running a special errand or doing anything specifically in furtherance of his employer’s interests. Thus, the employer was not vicariously liable.

Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.

Additional Resources:

Morales-Simental v. Genentech, Oct. 19, 2017, California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Four

More Blog Entries:

Court: Bankruptcy Of Negligent Driver Doesn’t Absolve UIM Insurer of Liability, Sept. 26, 2017, Fort Myers Personal Injury Lawyer Blog