Two recent California Appellate decisions reached different results on the issue of when an employer is liable for an employee’s automobile accident. In Moradi v. Marsh, the court found the employer liable for an employee’s automobile accident she caused on her way home from work while driving her own vehicle, even while she detoured for frozen yogurt and a yoga class. In Haliburton v. Dept. of Transportation, the court found the employer not liable for the employee’s accident in a company-owned vehicle while on a lengthy detour on personal business. How can we reconcile these two opinions and when will an employer likely be held liable for automobile accidents caused by their employees?
In Moradi v. Marsh, the court provided a useful overview of the law in this area. First, under the doctrine of “respondent superior,” an employer may be held liable for the actions of an employee committed during the course and scope of their employment. Second, under the “going and coming” rule, employers are not typically responsible for the actions of their employees on the way to and from work. However, under the “required vehicle” exception to the going and coming rule, if an employer requires an employee to use his or her personal vehicle as part of performing duties for the employer, the employer may not be entitled to the protection of the “going and coming” rule and may become responsible for the acts of the employee on the way to and from work, if those actions are “foreseeable.”
In the Moradi case, the court concluded that the required vehicle exception to the coming and going rule applied because the employer required the employee to use her personal vehicle for work duties (typically two to five times a week) including on the day of the accident. The court also concluded that a stop for frozen yogurt and a yoga class during the commute home from work was not so unforeseeable that the employer should be relieved of responsibility.
The court in Haliburton reached the opposite result even though the employee was driving a company-owned vehicle at the time of the accident. In the Haliburton case, the employee finished his shift and then drove the company vehicle over 100 miles away from work and home to meet his wife at a car dealership in order to complete the purchase of a personal vehicle. The court concluded that the employee was on a purely personal errand outside the course and scope of his employment when he drove the vehicle more than 100 miles away from work and from his home. Accordingly, the court found the employer had no liability under the theory of respondent superior.
These two cases serve as an important reminder that if an employer requires its employees to use their personal vehicles for work-related duties, the employer is taking on additional liability and should take certain steps to mitigate that liability. At a minimum, employers requiring employees to use personal vehicles for work-related duties should make sure those employees hold a proper license and should also verify that the employer’s business insurance is sufficient for the circumstances. While it may be tempting to limit an employee’s activity on the way to and from work in order to minimize potential liability for accidents, such restrictions create potential wage and hours claims for employees who are no longer free to use their commute time as they please, so employers should approach such restrictions with caution and only after obtaining legal advice.