When Is an Employer Vicariously Liable for Car Accidents Caused by an Employee?
Many car accidents involve negligent drivers who are performing job-related tasks when they blow through a red light or slam into a vehicle stopped due to traffic congestion. The potential liability of an employer in such situations can be important because employees may not have sufficient insurance or assets to fully compensate a seriously injured collision victim. Because an employer can be "vicariously liable" for the negligent acts of an employee engaged in employment-related tasks, businesses might dispute the employment status of a negligent employee in an effort to circumvent the powerful tool of vicarious liability.
The Court of Appeals of Georgia in the recent decision of Boatner v. Show Media, LLC demonstrates the importance of the distinction between an employee and an independent contractor in the context of the vicarious liability of an employer. The Boatners were riding a motorcycle when a driver made an illegal U-turn into opposing traffic in front of the Boatners. The car slammed into the motorcycle, causing the Boatners to be thrown from the motorcycle. The driver was behind the wheel of one of a fleet of eight vehicles that traveled around Atlanta as part of an advertising campaign. The plaintiffs sued the driver for negligence and Show Media (and related entities) based on the doctrines of respondeat superior (or, vicarious liability) and negligent entrustment.
Show Media hired other businesses to put together and execute marketing campaigns to promote its products. One of the companies that entered into an agreement with Show Media contracted to provide eight "wrapped" vehicles for an agreed upon fee to as part of an advertising campaign. The contract did not provide any specifics about how the campaign was to be conducted, and another business obtained the vehicles and drivers.
Show Media moved for summary judgement conceding negligence by the driver but contending that the doctrine of respondeat superior was inapplicable because the driver was not an employee of Show Media. The defendant also argued that the theory of negligent entrustment was inappropriate because there was no evidence that Show Media had knowledge that the driver was incompetent and that the company was not obligated to investigate his driver record. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment based on the grounds that the company that rented the cars hired, and supervised and paid the drivers. The trial judge also determined that the level of supervision exercised by Show Media over the conduct of the drivers was so limited that it constituted an independent contractor relationship.
The Boatners appealed the grant of summary judgment regarding the respondeat superior claim but not the negligent entrustment claim. Evidence revealed that Show Media gave daily directions of the itineraries for the vehicles. If the driver wanted to change his route, Show Media had to authorize such a change. The Boatners contended that the driver was a "temporary employee" of Show Media.
The Court of Appeals observed, "[a]n employer generally is not responsible for torts committed by an employee when the employee exercises an independent business and ... is not subject to the immediate direction and control of the employer." OCGA § 51-2-4. The court further indicated, "[t]he test for determining whether an employer is exercising a degree of control over an independent contractor's work such that the law will deem the independent contractor to be a servant of the employer – thus making the employer vicariously liable for any wrongful act committed by the contractor – is whether the contract gives, or the employer assumes, the right to control the time manner and method of the performance of the work ...."
The Court of Appeals conceded there was evidence to support the finding of an independent contractor relationship which included the fact that Show Media did not directly pay the driver, supervise non-driving activities, or determine her break and lunch periods. However, the court found summary judgment inappropriate because there also was evidence supporting the finding of an employment relationship because Show Media exercised control over the time, manner, and method of the daily driving route.
This case demonstrates the complex fact driven nature of proving an employment relationship when a company claims a negligent worker is an independent contractor. The doctrine of respondeat superior is a powerful legal doctrine which permits imputing the negligence of an employee to an employer. People injured by employees should seek legal counsel to effectively handle the fact intensive task of proving an employment relationship.
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