Holding an Employer Liable For Injuries Caused By Employees

Picture this: A pizza delivery driver is running behind on schedule. In order to meet his goal, the delivery driver floors the gas pedal when a signal light is about to turn red. Although the driver gets lucky a few times, eventually his luck runs out. He rams a motorcycle as the next signal light changes.

Who should be held liable for the motorcyclist’s injuries in this situation? The pizza delivery driver is the individual most responsible for the motorcyclist’s injuries, but the delivery driver is unlikely to have the money necessary to compensate for the medical bills, let alone the full damage award. Many personal injury attorneys will focus on the employer in situations like this in order to ensure that their client receives the most compensation possible under the law.

Employers can be held accountable for the injuries their employees inflict on others through one of two different theories: direct liability or vicarious liability.

Direct Liability

Direct liability, as the name suggests, is when the employer is directly responsible for the injury. This sounds odd, given that the employer is only responsible through the employee’s involvement. However, an employer can be directly liable when the “employer violated a duty of care it owed to the injured party and this negligence was proximate cause of resulting injury” (De Villers v. County of San Diego). From this case, we can identify three elements of direct liability. First, the employer must owe a duty of care to the injured party. Second, the employer must be negligent. Finally, the employer’s negligence must be the cause of the victim’s injuries.

The first requirement in this theory of liability is the duty between the employer and the injured party. The employer must have a legal obligation to the injured party to exercise a certain amount of care before the employer can be held directly liable. If there is no duty, the case against the employer cannot move forward.

For instance, in De Villers v. County of San Diego, the victim’s family sued the county of San Diego for negligently hiring a drug addicted employee and for allowing that employee to steal enough toxins to poison her husband, the victim. Although the facts suggested the county had been negligent, the court found that the defendant did not owe any duty to the husband’s family. The court ruled that a plaintiff who sues a public employer needs to show that the duty of care owed came from a statute and not just common notions of duty.

Direct liability typically involves negligent hiring, or failure to take reasonable care when hiring someone. “Under California law, an employer may be held directly liable for the behavior of an unfit employee where the employer was negligent in the hiring, training, supervising, or retaining of that employee” (Keum v. Virgin America Inc). In the pizza delivery example, the company could be directly liable if the company knew or could have known that the delivery driver had been responsible for numerous traffic accidents in the past, but retained him anyway.

Vicarious Liability

Vicarious liability is the process of holding a person accountable for the actions of another person, such as the employer-employee relationship (California Civil Code 2338). Vicarious liability involves the employee acting on behalf of the employer. “It is well established that traditional vicarious liability rules ordinary make principals or employers vicariously liable for acts of their agents or employees in the scope of their authority or employment (Meyer v. Holley). Since the employer is expected to be in control of the employee, the employer is at fault when the employee injures another person while the employee is working for the employer.

There are two elements required to hold an employer responsible for the actions of an employee through vicarious liability. First, the employer must have direction or control over the employee’s work. This element eliminates independent contractors from vicarious liability. The employer must be in control of both the methods as well as the goals of business (Valles v. Albert Einstein Medical Center).

The second element, the scope of employment, is more often contested. This element asks whether the employee was “on the job” when the victim was injured. If the employee was working on behalf of the employer, the employer should be responsible for the victim’s injuries because the employer could predict whether the accident would have occurred. One way to determine whether an employee acted within the scope of employment is by deciding whether the employee was on a detour or a frolic. A detour is a minor departure from duties while a frolic is a major departure from duties.

If the pizza delivery driver hit the motorcyclist while driving to a gas station, the delivery driver would be on a detour because gas is necessary for the driver to fulfill complete his job. If the delivery driver had hit the motorcycle on the way to his girlfriend’s house, the delivery driver would be on a frolic.

An employee on a detour is more likely to be in the scope of employment than an employee on a frolic. An employee on a frolic is typically on the frolic for personal reasons unrelated to business. An employee on a detour, however, is still a representative of the employer. For example, in Vasey v. Surrey Free Inns, a manager assaulted a guest after the guest failed to leave the inn. Although the manager was on a detour from typical responsibilities, assaulting a guest was not part of the manager’s job, the manager was still representing the inn during the assault and thus the inn was vicariously liable.

Although the distinction between frolic and detour appears to be clear, technology has made the line fuzzy. In Miller v. American Greetings Corp, the manager of the company was involved in an auto accident on his way to meeting with a probate attorney. Prior to the accident, the manager was on his cell phone with subordinates. However, the phone call was made a few minutes before the crash and it was unclear from the record whether the manger was still on the phone when the accident occurred. Although the courts eventually ruled that the manger was on a frolic, the case could have gone either way.

Direct liability and vicarious liability are the two legal theories personal injury attorneys use to hold an employer liable for victim’s injuries. Direct liability is focused on employer negligence in hiring while vicarious liability is focused on the employee as a proxy for the employer. The two theories sometimes overlap, but they are two distinct theories.

The California Supreme Court made this clear in Diaz v. Caramo. The high Court ruled that if the employer admits to one theory, the employer cannot be liable for the other. Employers can only be accountable for one theory of liability because “employer’s liability cannot exceed that of the employee driver who allegedly caused the accident.” In other words, victims cannot collect more than the harm done to them by the employee.

If the employer is found liable though, the victim is more likely to be compensated for the harm done to them. Contact the Pivtorak Law Firm by calling (415) 484-3009, or click here to request a free, confidential consultation online.

Can a Non-Party’s Bankruptcy Put the Brakes On Your Personal Injury Lawsuit?

A U.S. District Court judge in Georgia has ruled that Wal-Mart can not stop individuals from bringing personal injury lawsuits against the retail giant for allegedly defective gas cans sold to consumers.  Wal-Mart attempted to halt the lawsuits because the supplier of the gas cans, Blitz U.S.A., was currently under bankruptcy protection.  The company’s lawyers argued that Blitz’s indemnification of Wal-Mart created enough of a connection between the two companies to bring Wal-Mart under the protection of Blitz’s bankruptcy.  The court, however, disagreed, reasoning that there was no such close connection and that allowing the suits to go forward would not cause irreparable harm to the bankrupt party.  For more information on this case, you can read the full article at the San Francisco Chronicle’s web page.

The reason this story caught our eye is because we had a nearly identical question of law arise in one of our personal injury cases where the court also ruled in our favor after extensive motion work.  Our facts were slightly different:  Our client was injured after being rear-ended by an employee of a large corporation (to protect the identities of the parties involved, let’s call it “LC”), who was driving a company vehicle at the time.  Shortly before we filed suit, LC filed for a Chapter 11 business bankruptcy.  At that point, we knew that if we sued LC as well as the driver our case would be put on indefinite hold (possibly for years) while LC’s reorganization dragged along in the system.  We also knew after all that time our client’s claim against LC would most likely be discharged in the bankruptcy anyway.

Armed with this knowledge, we made a strategic decision and filed suit only against the driver.  Our adversaries, adeptly understanding the ramifications of our choice, tried to halt our lawsuit by claiming that the defendant was protected by the automatic stay in LC’s bankruptcy case.  Our contention was that the defendant, as an agent of LC, was separately liable for her own torts and therefore was independently liable for the car accident.

After much back-and-forth, a motion was filed by the defendant to stay our case while LC’s bankruptcy played out.  We knew that if we lost this motion, our case was ostensibly finished.  Luckily, the law in this area was fairly developed and there was a lot of good precedent for us.

In the Ninth Circuit, two cases specifically discuss these issues in some detail:  In re Chugach Forest Products, Inc. and Matter of Lockard.  But we had to convince the court that these cases applied to our situation even though, factually, they were not 100% on point.  Fortunately, the court in Chugach and Lockard outlined the law substantially enough, allowing us to assert our position with confidence.

The law spelled out in the cases is more or less straightforward:  The automatic stay in bankruptcy protects only the debtor and not third-parties who are independently liable to plaintiff.  The courts have created a very narrow exception to this rule in “unusual circumstances” where there is a very close connection in the financial interests of the debtor and the third-party, where it would cause irreparable harm to the bankruptcy debtor to allow the third-party to be sued.  The third-party’s mere right to indemnification from the debtor, however, is not an unusual circumstance that warrants applying the automatic stay.

As a result, we saw this as a simple issue:  Defendant, as LC’s agent, was independently liable for the rear-end collision and our client’s injuries.  As a result, we were free to bring a personal injury action against only the agent and not LC.  Because LC was not a party to this lawsuit, its bankruptcy should not have any effect on our litigation unless LC could show some irreparable harm to its reorganization efforts as a result.  But LC couldn’t do this because a mere employer-employee connection didn’t put the parties in an interlaced financial relationship where transactions affecting one automatically affected the other.  Furthermore, the employee’s right to indemnification simply wasn’t enough of an “unusual circumstance” under the law to justify putting a stop to our lawsuit.

In the end, the court agreed with our reasoning and declined to suspend our lawsuit because of LC’s bankruptcy.  After being allowed to continue the case was ultimately settled resulting in a very happy and grateful client.