Weekly Law Resume - November 2013: Torts – Revisiting Vicarious Liability for Employee Travel-Related Accidents

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Moradi v. Marsh USA, Inc. California Court of Appeal
Second Appellate District (September 17, 2013)

Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. v. Department of Transportation California Court of Appeal
Fifth Appellate District (October 1, 2013)

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer may be held liable for the torts of its employees committed within the course and scope of their employment. Many cases involve the “going and coming rule,” which states that an employee going to or coming from work is not in the course and scope of their employment. However, the going and coming rule does not typically apply where the employer requires an employee to use the vehicle for a work related purpose. Two recent cases explored this area of potential vicarious liability, with different results based on differing facts.

In Moradi v. Marsh USA, Inc., defendant Judy Bamberger worked for defendant Marsh USA, Inc., an insurance broker. Her job duties required her to use her own vehicle at work to visit prospective clients, provide seminars, and to transport materials and sometimes co-employees to work-related destinations. On the day of her accident with plaintiff Majid Moradi, she left her office at Marsh USA, Inc. and drove in the direction of her home in her personal vehicle. Ms. Bamberger intended to stop for frozen yogurt and to attend her yoga class before going home. However, while making a turn into the yogurt shop parking lot, she collided with Mr. Moradi’s motorcycle. Mr. Moradi sued Ms. Bamberger and Marsh for his injuries. Marsh brought and won a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that at the time of the accident, Ms. Bamberger was “neither at work, nor working, nor pursuing any task on behalf of her employer, but was pursuing personal interests.” Plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeal held that Ms. Bamberger’s stops for yogurt and yoga were within the course and scope of her employment, and Marsh could be liable for the accident.

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is liable for the torts of its employees if they are committed within the scope of their employment. Under the “going and coming rule,” an employee’s regular commute to and from work/home is generally not within the course and scope of employment. However, the “required vehicle exception” to the “going and coming rule” states that when an employer requires an employee to use a personal vehicle for his/her employer’s benefit, the “going and coming rule” does not apply, and the employer may face liability.

The Court observed that on the day of the accident, Ms. Bamberger had used her vehicle to take co-workers to a program that was company-sponsored, and she was planning to drive to an out-of-office meeting the next morning. According to the Court, the planned stops that afternoon did not constitute an unforeseeable, substantial departure from the employee‘s commute. Rather, they were a foreseeable, minor deviation. Finally, the planned stops were not so unusual or startling that it would be unfair to include the resulting loss among the other costs of the employer‘s business. Therefore, Marsh could potentially be liable for the accident, and summary judgment in its favor was reversed.

In Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. v. Department of Transportation, Troy Martinez, a Halliburton employee, worked half the time for Halliburton in Bakersfield, some 45-50 miles from his home in Caliente, and the remaining half he traveled to other work locations. Martinez was assigned a company vehicle by Halliburton for his daily commute. In September of 2009, he was assigned to a 2 to 3-week project in Seal Beach, California. He was provided a hotel room in Seal Beach. After the end of his work shift on September 13, 2009, Mr. Martinez drove the company vehicle 140 miles to Bakersfield (approximately 40 to 50 miles from Mr. Martinez’s home) to meet his wife at a car dealership to purchase her a vehicle. While crossing the Grapevine on his way back to Seal Beach for his next work shift, Mr. Martinez was involved in a traffic accident.

The six individuals injured in the accident sued Halliburton on the theories of respondeat superior, negligent supervision, and negligent entrustment. Halliburton argued that it could not be held liable because Mr. Martinez was not acting within the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The trial court agreed, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court decision. It explained that the required vehicle exception does not apply in two instances. First, when an employee’s trip deviates substantially from a direct commute in order to carry out his own personal business; and Second, when an employee’s trip serves only the employee’s personal interest. Whether an employee’s departure is substantial (thus falling outside the scope of employment) depends on whether the employee’s conduct is foreseeable.

The Court found that Mr. Martinez’s trip to Bakersfield fell under the second scenario. The Court found that Mr. Martinez’s trip was purely personal in nature because he traveled to meet his wife to purchase a car at a dealership that was 140 miles from his work assignment in Seal Beach. Summary judgment in favor of Halliburton was affirmed.

COMMENT
The lesson from both these cases is that an employer may be found vicariously liable for an accident of an employee going or coming from work in their own car, if the employee is required to use their vehicle for work, and the detour or side trip is foreseeable; while an employer who provides a vehicle will not be held responsible if the employee’s errand is so personal in nature and so far out of the scope of any possible benefit to the employer that it would be deemed unforeseeable. Whose vehicle is used and when is not always the determining factor.

For a copy of the complete decisions see:

Moradi v. Marsh USA, Inc.

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B239858.PDF

Halliburton v. Dept. Transp.

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/F064888.PDF

Topics:  Bodily Injury, Department of Transportation, Travel, Vicarious Liability

Published In: Labor & Employment Updates, Personal Injury Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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