Employer Liability for Injuries Caused by Employees: How Far Does The Law Go and Should Employers Be Worried?

It is well settled law in California that employers are liable for the injuries caused by an employee acting within the scope of his or her employment [i]. Vicarious liability, the technical term, exists in situations where employees use their vehicles in connection with job obligations or duties and get into accidents, injuring third parties or their property. California has applied the going and coming exception to limit employer liability where the accident occurred during the employee’s commute to work or home, and trips made by the employee for non-job related purposes [ii]. The law reasons that where the employee is going to or coming from work, this travel exceeds the scope of his or her employment, and accidents resulting from this travel do not create employer liability [iii]. However, some California courts have followed the trend of focusing less on whether the employee was going or coming from work, and more on the issue of whether the employer derived any benefit from the employee’s travel. This has complicated the understanding of the rule, and employers should proceed with caution when allowing employees to perform work-related duties in either their personal or company vehicles.

The recent California decision, Moradi v. Marsh USA, Inc., has complicated the previous understanding of the going and coming exception, expanding the scope of employer liability in comparable situations. In Moradi, an employee got into an accident at the end of her workday. After transporting several employees to a work related program, she left the office in her personal vehicle, and on the way home, stopped to get some frozen yogurt and take a yoga class [iv]. Entering the yoga parking lot, she hit a motorcyclist causing injury [v]. When the motorcyclist sued both the employee and her employer, the court held that the employee was acting within the scope of her employment, regardless of the fact that she was commuting home from work [vi]. The court relied on the facts that her job obligations frequently required the use of an automobile and that she was often required to bring her personal vehicle to the office for the purpose of work-related trips and errands.

The court reasoned that the frequent use of her car for job related obligations extended beyond normal commuting. The court relied on Hinman v. Westinghouse Elec. Co[vii], purporting that an employee is considered to act within the scope of her employment while going or coming from work if the employer gains incidental benefit [viii] from the employee’s use of her car during the workday. In the present situation, the employee was required to use her vehicle to transport work related materials from the office to various sites, to transport potential clients, and to give educational presentations [ix]. The court noted that given the nature of the arrangement between the employee and employer, some personal errands were foreseeable and necessary for the employee’s “comfort, convenience, health, and welfare” [x] and therefore did not substantially depart from her work obligations. Although she was running a personal errand by getting frozen yogurt, she planned to visit a potential client first thing in the morning and had all necessary work materials in her vehicle at the time of the accident. Thus, the court held that she was tending to both her own business and the company’s business at substantially the same time, [xi] and she was therefore acting within the scope of her employment.

Dan
DAN KRAMER
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California courts continue to focus on this incidental benefit theory for imposing employer liability. This was the case in Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. v. Department of Transportation, where the court held that despite the employee’s use of the company vehicle, he was not acting within the scope of employment at the time of a collision where there was no connection between the employee’s trip and his employment. In this case, the employee left work in a company oilrig and embarked on a 140-mile journey to another town so that he could meet his wife at a car dealership to purchase a vehicle [xii]. The court reasoned that were the employee was not performing any services or running any errands for the employer in the oil rig, the employer was unaware of the accident, and the trip did not further the employer or any business duty, the risk of traffic accidents were not inherent or incidental to the employer or business [xiii]. Unlike Moradi, in the present case, the employer derived no incidental benefit from the employee’s use of the company vehicle for a trip to visit his wife [xiv]. Thus, although the vehicle belonged to the company, the trip constituted a material departure from any employer benefit [xv], and any risk associated with the trip was unforeseeable, creating no liability upon the employer [xvi].

Again, focusing on a benefit to the employer, the court in Rayii v Gatica held that the employer was not liable where the employee left work, and got into a head on collision with another vehicle after crossing the center dividing line [xvii]. At the time of the collision, the employee was returning from a jobsite, but it remained unclear whether he was returning home, or to the company warehouse [xviii]. There was no company policy that required employees to return to the company warehouse after completion of their off-site work [xix]. The court determined that there was substantial evidence to support a finding that the employee was not acting within the scope of employment where the collision occurred in his personal vehicle, and where the incident took place nearly twelve hours after the employee commenced his shift at the warehouse [xx].

Although there remains ambiguity surrounding the scope of the going and coming exception, especially after Moradi, employers should remain exceedingly cautious when requiring employees to use their own vehicles for work-related duties. Employers could inadvertently expose themselves to vicariously liability resulting from injuries suffered by third parties from the torts of their employees, even where the employee was acting for his or her own personal benefit.

Over the last year KHS has recovered millions of dollars on behalf of families and individuals who were injured by the negligence of a corporation’s employees.

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[i] Moradi v. Marsh USA, Inc., (2013) 219 Cal. App. 4th. 886, 894.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id., at 892.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id., at 906.

[vii] Hinman v. Westinghouse Elec. Co., (1970) 2 Cal. 3d 956, 960.

[viii] Moradi, at 895.

[ix] Id., at 890.

[x] Id., at 902.

[xi] Id., at 906.

[xii] Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. v. Department of Transportation, (2013) 220 Cal. App. 4th 87, 91.

[xiii] Id., at 94.

[xiv] Id., at 96 – 7.

[xv] Id., at 102.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Rayii v. Gatica, (2013) 218 Cal. App. 4th 1402, 1406.

[xviii] Id., at 1409.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.