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Employer May Be Liable For Accident Caused by On-Call Employee

company-car-accident-lawyerIn California, if you are injured in an accident that is caused by someone who is working, the at-fault driver’s employer may be liable to pay damages to you. Like other states, California assigns liability to employers when their employees negligently cause injuries to others while they are working. However, employers are not responsible for the negligent actions of their employees when their employees are not acting within the scope and course of their jobs.

In Moreno v. Visser Ranch, Cal. Ct. App., Case No. F075822, the court explored a situation in which a worker was driving an employer-provided vehicle after hours. However, since the worker was required to drive the employer-provided vehicle at all times and was on-call 24 hours per day, the court still found that he may have been acting within the scope and course of his job, meaning that his employer could be found to be liable by the trier of fact.

Factual and procedural background of the case

On Sept. 12, 2012, Ray David Moreno, the plaintiff, was riding as a passenger in a 2004 GMC Sierra truck that was being driven by his father, Ernesto Moreno Lopez. The truck was owned by Lopez’s employer, Visser Ranch. Visser Ranch had issued the truck to Lopez to use for his job. Since he was on-call 24 hours per day so that he could respond quickly for emergency maintenance at the various dairy facilities that were owned by his employer, Lopez was told to drive the truck at all times when he was off from work.

Lopez’s normal working hours were from 6 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Saturday. While he had Sundays off, he still was on call and was expected to respond immediately to his employer’s location for any emergency repairs. Lopez left work at 4:30 pm on the day of the accident and went home to load a grill in the truck. He then drove to his brother’s house for a family gathering. Once it was over, he drove the truck to take Moreno to his job. Lopez was unaware that the county had started some resurfacing work on the road. He failed to negotiate an S-curve in the resurfacing work area, which caused him to run off the road and the truck to overturn. Moreno, who had not been wearing a seatbelt, was seriously injured.

Moreno filed a lawsuit in which his father, Visser Ranch, Graceland Dairy, and General Motors. He alleged that Visser Ranch and Graceland Dairy were liable to pay for his losses under a theory of respondeat superior. This theory assigns liability to employers of defendants who negligently cause injury to others while they are acting in the course and scope of their jobs. He also alleged that GM was liable under a theory of strict liability, products liability, and breach of warranty.

The defendants, Visser Ranch and Graceland Dairy, filed motions for summary judgment. They argued that they were not liable because Lopez was not acting within the scope and course of his employment.

Issue: Whether a driver who is off from work but who is required to use a company-issued vehicle at all times is acting within the scope and course of his employment?

The County of Tulare and Lopez filed motions to oppose the motion for summary judgment filed by Visser Ranch and Graceland Dairy. Lopez argued that Moreno was employed by Cream of the Crop, which was contracted to perform work at Graceland Dairy and other Visser Ranch properties and that Lopez was driving Moreno to work. He also argued that since he was on call 24 hours per day, he was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident.

The Superior Court granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment as to the theories of respondeat superior and negligent entrustment. It found that the County of Tulare also had not raised sufficient factual arguments to support sending the theory of negligent entrustment to a jury. Finally, the court found that Lopez was not acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident because it occurred outside of his normal working hours, and it happened when he was returning from a family function rather than from a work function. Moreno appealed the court’s ruling to the California Court of Appeals, arguing that Lopez was acting in the course and scope of his employment because he was on-call 24 hours per day and was required to drive the company-provided truck at all times so that he could respond quickly to maintenance emergencies.

Rule: Employers are only liable for the actions of employees who are acting within the scope and course of their employment at the time that they negligently cause injuries to others.

California recognizes the doctrine of respondeat superior, which recognizes that the employers of drivers are liable when the drivers negligently cause accidents and injuries to others while they are working. As we have previously discussed, employers may also be liable for negligently entrusting their vehicles to drivers that they have reason to know are bad drivers. Similarly, companies may be liable for negligently training and supervising their employees.

For companies to be vicariously liable for the actions of their drivers, the accidents must have occurred while the drivers were acting in the course and scope of their employment. To prove that a driver was acting under the course and scope of his or her employment at the time of the accident, plaintiffs must be able to prove the following elements under CACI No. 3720:

  • The employee’s conduct was reasonably related to the types of duties that he or she is regularly required to perform for his or her job; or
  • The conduct was reasonably foreseeable in light of the employee’s job responsibilities.

The issue in this case was whether Lopez being on-call and being required to drive a company vehicle even during his off-hours constituted working in the course and scope of his employment when the accident occurred.

Analysis

The court reviewed Halliburton Energy Services Inc. v. Department of Transportation, 220 Cal.App.4th 87 (2013). In that case, the court ruled that plaintiffs must prove that tortfeasors were acting in the scope and course of their employment before respondeat superior will apply. Employers are generally considered to be vicariously liable for the torts of employees when their actions are reasonably foreseeable and related to their job duties. Under the Halliburton case, the test that courts use to determine whether an accident happened while an employee was working within the scope and course of his or her employment is as follows:

  • The act was either incidental to or required by the job duties; or
  • The employee’s misconduct was reasonably foreseeable by the employer.

The court then looked at the going and coming rule. Under that rule, employers are generally not liable for accidents that their employees cause when they are commuting to or from their jobs. However, the court noted that the going and coming rule was inapplicable to Moreno’s case because Lopez was not going to work or driving from work when the accident happened.

To determine whether Lopez was acting in the scope and course of employment, the court then applied the permissions and benefits test. Under this test, employers may be vicariously liable if the employee acted with the permission of the employer and the employer derived some benefit from the employee’s actions. Moreno argued that Lopez was given permission to drive the truck and the employer benefitted from his doing so because the employer could then count on him to respond more quickly in the case of an emergency. The court also found that since he was on call 24 hours per day and was required to drive the truck even during his non-working hours, a jury could find that Lopez was acting within the scope and course of his employment.

Conclusion

The court reversed the lower court’s order granting summary judgment. The case was returned to the Superior Court for further proceedings.

Consult with an experienced Los Angeles personal injury attorney

If you were injured in an accident that was caused by someone who was working, you might benefit from talking to an experienced Los Angeles personal injury lawyer. Proving that an employer was vicariously liable can sometimes be difficult. Contact the Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat today to schedule a free consultation.

Resources

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2018/f075822.html

https://www.victimslawyer.com/claims-against-company-drivers-in-california.html

https://www.justia.com/trials-litigation/docs/caci/3700/3720/

https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=16602933746035541047&q=halliburton+energy+services+inc.+v.+department+of+transportation&hl=en&as_sdt=6,26&as_vis=1

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