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Employer Liability for Personal Injury at Issue in CA Appeals Decision

When workers cause accidents in Los Angeles while they are acting in the course and scope of their jobs, their employers may be liable to pay damages to the injured victims. There are limits to what is considered to be acting in the course and scope of employment, however. In Ayon v. Esquire Deposition Solutions, Cal. Ct. Appeals, Case No. G054578, G055396, the court considered the limits of respondeat superior in cases involving after-hours phone calls between two employees.

Factual background of the case

Brittini Zuppardo had worked at Esquire Deposition Solutions since 2005 as its calendaring manager. Her job was to enter deposition information onto a calendar and to schedule with attorneys. She would call court reporters from a list until she could find one that was available on the date of the scheduled deposition. Zuppardo’s normal working hours were from 8;30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Michelle Halkett was a court reporter who did 99 percent of her work through Esquire Deposition Solutions. She had met Zuppardo through work, and the two had become friends. On May 29, 2013, Zuppardo got off of work at 5 pm. She then went out to eat dinner with her boyfriend and visited a friend’s house before driving home. On her way home, she called Halkett from her Bluetooth-enabled hands-free cell phone in her car. While she was talking, Zuppardo failed to see the plaintiff, Jessica Ayon, who was crossing the street in dark clothing and while she was not in a crosswalk. Zuppardo and Halkett both stated that they had been talking about Halkett’s son’s prom and had not been talking about work-related topics.

Issue: Whether an employer is vicariously liable when an employee is talking to a coworker after work on a cell phone and gets into an accident?

Work-related calls after hours may sometimes be enough to make an employer liable for personal injuries that their employees cause to others. However, there are limits to when cell phone calls might rise to the level of falling within the scope and course of employment. In this case, there was a dispute about whether Zuppardo had called Halkett for work-related scheduling purposes or if the call was truly about the son’s prom. Ayon argued that Zuppardo’s call was work-related, which Esquire disputed. Ayon filed a lawsuit against Esquire, and Esquire filed a motion for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion for summary judgment, and Ayon filed an appeal.

Rule: Employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees while their employees are acting within the scope and course of their employment.

In California, employers may be liable for personal injuries that are caused by the negligence of their employees. However, the vicarious liability of the employers will only apply if the employees were working within the course and scope of their jobs at the time of their accidents. On appeal, the Cal. Court of Appeals looked at whether the plaintiff had presented enough evidence to create a triable issue of fact about whether Zuppardo’s phone call to Halkett was about work or if it was instead about personal matters.

Analysis

When considering whether an employer is vicariously liable for personal injuries, the court looks at whether the employee was acting within the course and scope of his or her job at the time of the accident. Part of this inquiry includes looking at whether the risk that the employee would act in a negligent manner was only incidental to his or her job or if the risk was fairly typical and could be expected. The fact that the worker’s employment brought the worker together with the victim at a particular place or time is not enough under Lisa M. Henry v. Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, 12 Cal.4th 291 (1995).

In the Ayon case, Zuppardo and Halkett met because of their jobs, so their shared employment led to their friendship and the subsequent phone call. However, that is not enough to make Esquire vicariously liable for Zuppardo’s negligence when she placed the phone call to Halkett while she was driving. The court then looked at whether there was a material issue of triable fact about whether Zuppardo had called Halkett to schedule a deposition or whether the call was actually about non-work issues as both Zuppardo and Halkett had claimed.

In Miller v. American Greetings Corp., 161 Cal.App.4th 1055 (2008), the court held that a cell phone call that was placed eight minutes prior to an accident was not enough to make the employer vicariously liable for the employee’s conduct. However, the court noted in its decision that an employee could be found to be acting within the course and scope of his or her employment when an employee is talking on a work-related call at the time of the accident.

At the hearing on the motion for summary judgment, Esquire had presented testimony from both Halkett and Zuppardo that the phone call had nothing to do with their jobs and instead was about Halkett’s son’s prom. Esquire also presented evidence that Zuppardo and Halkett were friends.

Ayon argued that a jury could reasonably infer that the call was placed for scheduling purposes and was work-related. The plaintiff presented evidence of Zuppardo’s phone records for the six months prior, which showed that Zuppardo had only placed one phone call to Halkett. Zuppardo had testified that she had called her multiple times per week because of their friendship. The court stated that while it was strong evidence that the two were not close friends, it was not evidence that they did not have a friend relationship. Both ladies had testified about activities that they enjoyed doing together outside of work and that they had visited each other’s homes.

Ayon argued that Halkett and Zuppardo may have lied about the phone call. Esquire had a strict policy prohibiting employees from talking on their cell phones while they were working. The plaintiff argued that since they could stand to lose their jobs if it was determined that they had a work-related call while Zuppardo was driving, it could be inferred that the call could have been related to work and that the two were lying. However, the court found that it was not enough evidence for a disputed issue of material fact as to Esquire’s liability.

Conclusion

After reviewing the evidence, the court found that Esquire Deposition Solutions was not vicariously liable for the injuries that were suffered by Jessica Ayon in the accident when Zuppardo struck her. The court upheld the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendant and the dismissal of the case.

Contact an experienced personal injury lawyer

If you have been injured in an accident that was caused by someone who you believe was working when it occurred, it is a good idea to get help from an experienced personal injury attorney in Los Angeles. A lawyer may review the evidence to determine whether the defendant was acting within the course and scope of his or her employment. If the defendant was not acting within his or her job at the time, the employer will not be vicariously liable. However, if the defendant was working at the time of the accident, the employer may be liable to pay damages. Call the Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat to schedule a consultation.

Resources

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2018/g054578.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2018-09-28-personal-injury-064e2d8a74&utm_content=text-case-title-5

https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=5563733899771202774&q=Lisa+M.+Henry+v.+Mayo+Newhall+Memorial+Hospital&hl=en&as_sdt=200006&as_vis=1

https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=16684249612140783702&q=Miller+v.+American+Greetings+Corp&hl=en&as_sdt=200006&as_vis=1

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