Can an Employer be Held Liable for the Negligent Actions of an Employee?
If you were in a motor vehicle accident caused by a driver operating within the scope of his or her employment, you may be able to support a claim for damages against both the driver (employee) and the driver’s employer.
The idea that the negligence of an employee can be imputed or passed on to the employer is known as “respondeat superior.” The focus of this concept is on the employee, and there are two relevant questions that must be answered in order to determine whether the employer can be held liable for their employee’s negligence.
1. Was the At-Fault Party an Employee of the Employer?
Although the first question usually yields an easy answer, it may be that the driver did not meet the definition of an employee in order to hold the employer liable for his or her actions. If the driver was the spouse or child of an employee, this would not meet the necessary requirements to recover against the employer. However, if there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the driver was in fact an employee of the employer, then the first requirement necessary to establish respondeat superior may be met.
2. Was the Employee Acting Within the Scope of Employment?
The second question requires an investigation into what the employee was doing at the time of the accident. Specifically, was the employee performing their job or acting within the scope of their employment when the accident happened? An employee is said to be “operating within the scope of employment” if he or she was performing a task for the employer at the time of the accident.
An employer is not liable for the negligence of an employee if the employee was attending to a personal, non-employment-related matter. Furthermore, even if the employee was supposed to be on duty at the time of the accident, if evidence indicates that the employee was doing something other than serving his employment duties at the time of the accident or if there is not enough evidence to prove that the defendant was completing tasks on behalf of the employer at the time of the accident, the accident victim may not succeed in recovering damages from the employer.
For example, in Lindsey v. Leonard, 235 N.C. 100 (1952), the supreme court reviewed a decision finding that the plaintiff had not demonstrated enough evidence that the defendant was in the course and scope of his employment during an automobile accident with the plaintiff. The defendant was said to have a job selling blankets and bedspreads for a company on a commission basis out of his personal vehicle. At the time of the accident, several blankets and bedspreads were found throughout the vehicle. However, there was no additional evidence, such as order forms or delivery schedules, to form a reasonable inference that the defendant was operating in the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. Therefore, the company could not be held liable for the defendant’s negligent acts.
Frolic v. Detour
While the employee must be engaged in some duty related to his or her employment at the time of the accident, it is possible that a minor deviation by the employee, known as a “frolic,” may be allowed under certain circumstances. If an activity is too far removed from the employee’s scope of employment, it will be considered a “detour” and liability will not be imputed or passed to the employer. However, the difference between a minor “frolic” and a “detour” is usually fact dependent, so the following examples should provide further clarification.
Frolic Example: Let’s assume that you are struck by a tractor-trailer that fails to yield to traffic while turning into a gas station near an exit to a major highway. The driver of the tractor-trailer was making a long haul up the East Coast and was planning to stop at the exit to fill up with gas and grab a quick meal before returning to the road. Although the driver’s contract with his employer, the tractor-trailer company, may not specify when he should take a break for lunch or that his duties include filling his rig up with gasoline, one can easily presume that a trip requiring at least a full day to complete would require him to fill his tank and eat a meal along the way.
The above example would be considered a frolic as opposed to a detour because the driver made a short and essential deviation from his employment duties before quickly returning to the road.
Detour Example: Let’s assume the same facts as in the first example except that instead of striking your vehicle while entering a gas station or fast food venue, the driver of the tractor-trailer hits you as you’re leaving a movie theater. Assume there is not a gas station or food venue for miles. Attending a showing of a movie in the middle of a long haul is likely not in the scope of the driver’s employment. As such, this is not an activity that one would consider to be part of the employee’s duties.
Therefore, this example represents a complete detour from the employee’s scope of employment because the employee was intending to engage in an activity that was solely for personal enjoyment rather than to serve his employment duties. The employer may be able to shield itself from liability under these circumstances because the actions of the employee have limited or severed the employment relationship and made him personally responsible for the accident.
Can an Employee Who Has Taken a Detour Restore the Employment Relationship?
Where an employee has deviated from the scope of his employment to complete a personal errand or activity but later returns to his employment duties and causes an accident, the employer may still be held liable. However, the employment relationship is not fully restored until the employee returns to what he was supposed to be doing.
For example, in Hinson v. Chemical Corp. 230 N.C. 476 (1949), a driver of a company truck was supposed to return his truck back to the plant after dropping off laborers, but instead he drove the truck 20 miles further away from the plant without permission to pursue his own private affairs. At this point, he departed from his employment and remained outside the scope of his employment until he returned to the point of the departure, i.e. returning the truck to the plant or arriving at a site to pick up the laborers. In this case, the driver was two miles away from his point of departure when he caused the accident with the plaintiff, so the employer could not be held liable for the driver’s negligence.
However, had the driver safely returned to the plant, or if he had arrived to pick up the laborers before causing the accident, it is unlikely that the employer could then claim that the accident occurred outside of the scope of employment.
The Going-and-Coming Exception
One notable exception to the concept of respondeat superior is where the employee causes an accident while going to or coming from work. Although the employee may have no choice but to drive to and from work every day, the employee is considered off-duty when he leaves to go home for the day and when he returns the next morning. Therefore, an accident caused by an employee leaving or returning to work will prevent a plaintiff from holding the employer liable for the negligence of the employee. See Rogers v. Carolina Garage, 236 N.C. 525 (1952), where a company could not be held liable for an employee parking a work truck near the highway and then causing an accident as he backed his personal vehicle toward the highway to return home.
However, if the employee’s duties include leaving the workplace to meet with clients or visit other workplaces, the employer would be held liable for accidents caused during either the trip over to the client/workplace or the return trip to the main headquarters. See Ellis v. Service Co., Inc., 240 N.C. 453 (1954), where a company was not held liable under respondeat superior for an employee involved in an accident while operating a personal vehicle from one workplace to another workplace, at which point the employee was to pick up a work truck and commence his employment duties. There are even some cases where the employee would be expected to make a trip home prior to meeting with a client to change clothes or retrieve materials for a meeting. The relevant question is whether or not such a trip can be proven to have been contemplated by the employer as part of the employee’s duties.
Deliberate and Willful Acts of Employee
An employer is only liable for the negligent acts committed by an employee during the scope of his or her employment. Therefore, if an employee deliberately and willfully injures a person out of hatred or malice, liability cannot be imputed to the employer. Even if the employee was performing duties that would fall within the scope of employment, the employer will not be held liable for an employee’s intentional acts that cause injury to another person.
For example, let’s assume the employee was a limousine driver transporting a fare to a specific location. During the trip, the employee spots someone crossing the street that he deeply despises and he decides to run the person over with the limousine. Even if the employee does not deviate from the route and gets the fare to the final destination, the limousine driver’s employer will not be liable for the employee running over the person crossing the street because the employer is not liable for deliberate and willful acts of an employee.
Proof of Ownership as Prima Facie Evidence of Agency Relationship
As previously mentioned, the employment relationship between an employer and employee is a type of agency relationship because it must be shown that the employer had knowingly permitted the employee to operate the vehicle owned and controlled by the employer. If the employee is operating a personal vehicle for the benefit of the employer, it makes liability of the employer more difficult to determine, as demonstrated by some of the previous examples.
However, establishing an agency relationship for the purposes of respondeat superior is far easier when the vehicle is owned by and registered to the employer because proof of ownership is considered “prima facie evidence” that the employer had knowledge, control and ownership over the vehicle that caused the accident. Prima facie evidence is where you have enough evidence to prove something based on some basic facts, but the proof can be refuted.
Furthermore, “proof of the registration of a motor vehicle in the name of any person, firm, or corporation, shall for the purpose of any such action, be prima facie evidence of ownership and that such motor vehicle was then being operated by and under the control of a person for whose conduct the owner was legally responsible, for the owner’s benefit, and within the course and scope of his employment.” N.C. General Statutes § 20-71.1(b).
Therefore, if you can prove that the negligent driver was operating a vehicle registered to an employer at the time of the accident, you will likely stand a good chance at bringing the employer into the claim as a responsible third party.