Was a Truck Driver “Working” When He Abandoned His Truck 80 Miles From His Destination and Caused an Accident?

A man suffered injuries in a multi-vehicle collision that he said resulted from the negligence of a trucking company and its employee, a truck driver who ran on foot into traffic on I-75 North in Henry County—setting off a chain of events that culminated in the collision.

The truck driver was employed by the trucking company as a truck driver, and, on November 1, 2017, he made a delivery for the company in Montgomery, Alabama while driving the company-owned semi. The driver then drove the tractor-trailer to Gordon, Georgia to visit his mother. The trailer was empty. When his employer contacted him, they told him that he was fired and to return their semi to one of its locations in Gainesville, Georgia.

Truck Drive Crashes Through Express Lane Barriers

On November 3, 2017, the truck driver drove from Gordon to within 200 yards of the trucking company’s Gainesville headquarters. However, rather than proceeding to the trucking company’s headquarters, he turned onto I-985 South and began driving away from Gainesville. The truck driver continued onto I-85 South through Atlanta and merged onto I-75 South as he left the city. In Henry County, he drove the tractor-trailer onto the express lanes, driving through security barriers that were lowered to prevent access to the express lanes. When he drove through the barriers, debris flew over the median wall and damaged a passing vehicle.

He then drove south in the express lanes for two miles until he struck the side railing and brought the big rig to a stop near exit 224. He then got out of the 18-wheeler, ran on foot across the express lanes, hurdled a barrier, and ran into traffic on I-75 North. When the truck driver darted into traffic, an SUV swerved to avoid him and, in doing so, collided with the plaintiff’s tractor-trailer. The truck driver was struck and injured by a third vehicle.

The police report said that the truck driver had “random fits of rage” and “continually tried to get up, and walk into traffic.” The report also noted the driver’s dilated pupils, rapid pulse, and elevated blood pressure. As a result of the incident, the truck driver was issued citations for multiple offenses, including driving under the influence. A Henry County grand jury indicted the truck driver of numerous violations, including theft of the trucking company’s semi and driving under the influence. He pled guilty to theft.

The plaintiff filed this lawsuit, asserting claims against the trucking company for the truck driver ‘s negligence, as well as for the trucking company’s negligent hiring, training, and supervision of the truck driver. During his deposition, the truck driver testified that, upon arriving in Gainesville, he made a wrong turn and returned to the interstate to reroute. According to the truck driver:

I realized I had been going to a point where I missed my turn and had to recalculate and reroute the truck to get back on the interstate to get back off on my exit again to go in the right direction. I made a wrong turn and had to reroute the truck in order to get back to where I was trying to get to of dropping the tractor and trailer off. That’s how I ended up back on the interstate thinking that I was going in my right direction.

When asked about the events leading up to the collision, what substances he might have ingested, and why he continued driving after hitting the barriers restricting access to the express lanes, the truck driver invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The trucking company moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiff’s negligence claim against the trucking company, which was premised on respondeat superior, wasn’t valid because the driver was acting outside the scope of his employment. Specifically, the company argued that the driver was operating the tractor-trailer at a place and for a purpose unauthorized by the trucking company and that the truck driver’s guilty plea to theft by taking was evidence of his admission that he didn’t have authority to be in the trucking company’s tractor-trailer at the time of the collision.

The plaintiff argued that the driver’s testimony regarding missing his turn and returning to the interstate to reroute the tractor-trailer conflicted with his guilty plea to theft by taking and thus created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he was acting in the course and scope of his employment with the trucking company at the time of the collision. The plaintiff failed to provide any evidence supporting his response in opposition to the trucking company’s motion.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the trucking company, finding that the truck driver was acting outside the scope of his employment with the trucking company at the time of the collision.

The trial court found that giving the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences and finding that the truck driver got lost in Gainesville and got back on I-985 traveling south to recalibrate his GPS, he still knew the company’s truck needed to be returned to Gainesville. It is contrary to logic or reason that a professional driver would be less than a mile from his destination and then drive 80 miles away from it without making a conscious decision to do so.

The Court of Appeals Analysis

Senior Appellate Judge Herbert E. Phipps wrote the opinion for the Georgia Court of Appeals and explained that under the doctrine of respondeat superior, a master is liable for the tort of its servant only to the extent that the servant committed the tort in connection with his employment. The act must also be within the scope of his employment and in furtherance of his employer’s business.

The general rule for determining whether the master is liable for the acts of an employee is not whether the act was done during the existence of the employment, but whether it was done within the scope of the actual transaction of the master’s business for accomplishing the ends of his employment.

Judge Phipps explained that the question of whether an employee acted in furtherance of his employer’s business and within the scope of his employment is generally an issue to be resolved by the jury. But the evidence in some cases is so plain and undisputable that the court may resolve a respondeat superior claim as a matter of law. Here, there was no evidence that the driver, at the time of the collision, was acting within the scope of his employment or in furtherance of the trucking company’s business. In fact, as the trial court correctly found, the record contains direct evidence that the truck driver wasn’t acting in the scope of his employment or in furtherance of the trucking company’s business in the form of the truck driver’s guilty plea to theft by taking of the company’s semi.

As evidenced by his guilty plea to stealing his employer’s tractor-trailer, Judge Phipps found that the truck driver clearly acted for purely personal reasons unconnected with his job when, after exiting the stolen big rig, he ran into oncoming traffic. As a result, the trucking company met its burden of presenting evidence that the truck driver wasn’t engaged in furtherance of the trucking company’s business but was on a private enterprise of his own.

As the trial court’s order noted, “[i]f the collision had occurred within closer proximity to the trucking company’s headquarters . . . a jury question would arise as to whether [the truck driver ] was still in the course and scope of his employment.”

Also, the driver didn’t testify that he was lost—rather, he testified that he made a wrong turn in Gainesville—80 miles north of the site of the collision. Under these circumstances, Judge Phipps said the plaintiff’s assertion that the truck driver was lost is nothing more than speculation. Such speculation cannot defeat the positive and uncontradicted evidence that the truck driver stole the trucking company’s tractor-trailer and thus was acting for personal reasons, outside the scope of his employment, and not in furtherance of the trucking company’s business at the time of the collision.

The judgment of the trial court was affirmed. Blake v. Tribe Express, 2021 Ga. App. LEXIS 409 *; 2021 WL 3578045 (Ga. App. August 13, 2021).

This is just ONE way the case could have gone. You need an experienced truck accident lawyer who knows the law to argue for you.

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