What’s the proper framework for assessing the issue of respondeat superior when an employee commits a tortious act while commuting to or from work or during a lunch break? A recent Supreme Court decision explains.
In January 2018, a childcare worker was returning from her lunch break when she looked away from the road to scroll through the contacts on her cell phone so that she could call her manager to report that she was running late.
While she was distracted, her car crossed the median and caused an accident with a truck. The truck driver filed a personal injury lawsuit against the employee and later added the childcare, alleging, among other things, that the employee was acting in furtherance of the childcare’s business and within the scope of her employment at the time of the accident. As such, the childcare was liable under the legal theory of respondeat superior.
Specifically, the truck driver asserted that because the childcare had “strict teacher-child classroom ratios to maintain throughout the day,” the employee’s attempted call was “necessary and in the interest of the childcare’s business and personal affairs.”
The truck driver presented evidence to the trial court showing that the childcare had a policy directing its employees to speak with a manager “as soon as possible” if they were going to arrive late to work and that they could be disciplined or terminated for being absent, tardy, or leaving early without prior knowledge and approval of the childcare administrator. At her deposition, the employee testified that punctuality was “very important” at the childcare, and she typically called her manager if she was going to be late. The truck driver also presented evidence that the state of Georgia and the childcare each established applicable regulations for teacher-to-child ratios, the childcare had a policy enforcing those regulations, and the employee and the two assistant teachers with whom she worked usually planned the times of their respective lunch breaks so as to maintain the required teacher-to-child ratios in the employee’s classroom.
The childcare moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion, concluding that the employee wasn’t acting in furtherance of the childcare’s business and within the scope of her employment when the accident happened. The truck driver appealed, and a Georgia Court of Appeals panel reversed, holding that under the “special circumstances exception” to the general rule that employees don’t act in furtherance of an employer’s business and within the scope of employment when they are commuting to and from work or when they are on a lunch break, there was enough evidence to raise a jury question as to the issue of liability under respondeat superior.
What is the “Special Circumstances Exception”?
Justice Sarah Hawkins Warren of the Georgia Supreme Court wrote that the “special circumstances exception” is merely an application of the doctrine of respondeat superior, rather than a separate doctrine or an “exception.” Whether respondeat superior liability attaches is based on whether an employee was acting in furtherance of her employer’s business and within the scope of her employment at the time she committed the accident. The justice explained that this same framework of analysis applies whether or not the employee was commuting to or from work or on a lunch break at the time. As a result, the Supreme Court rejected the Court of Appeals’ “special circumstances exception,” as well as the multi-factor test the court has developed for applying that “exception.”
In accordance with O.C.G.A. § 51-2-2, the Supreme Court justice explained that two elements must be present to render a master liable under respondeat superior:
- The servant must be in furtherance of the master’s business; and,
- He or she must be acting within the scope of his master’s business.
In other words, the doctrine of respondeat superior holds an employer liable for the negligent or intentional torts of its employee when “the tort was done within the scope of the actual transaction of the employer’s business for accomplishing the ends of his employment.” Thus, an employer isn’t liable for an employee’s tort if it was committed “‘not by reason of the employment, but because of matters disconnected therewith.'” So, if an employee “‘steps aside'” from her employer’s business to do something “entirely disconnected from it and injury to another results,” the employer isn’t liable.
Respondeat Superior Inapplicable When an Employee Commits a Tort Going to or from Work
Justice Warren noted that for nearly 90 years, appellate courts in Georgia have consistently held that an employee “acts only for h[er] own purposes”—and not for those of her employer-while she is going to or from work, so respondeat superior generally doesn’t apply when an employee commits a tort during her work commute. As such, an employee generally doesn’t act in furtherance of her employer’s business and within the scope of her employment while she travels to or from her workplace. So, when an employee causes a car accident while driving to or from work, respondeat superior doesn’t apply, absent some showing that the employee was otherwise acting in furtherance of her employer’s business and within the scope of her employment.
The Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals correctly acknowledged these principles, but it then went astray by applying the so-called “special circumstances exception.” The Court of Appeals treated the “special circumstances exception” as a separate legal doctrine that prevents the general rules about commuting and lunch breaks from applying. However, it’s only an application of the doctrine of respondeat superior, not a separate doctrine.
Justice Warren found that the Court of Appeals was correct that the long-established rule is that an employee’s travel to or from work is not within the scope of employment for purposes of applying the doctrine of respondeat superior. However, when a plaintiff contends that the employee who is traveling to or from work does something else that’s allegedly within the scope of the employee’s employment, that contention isn’t properly assessed by asking if that separate act fits within a small set of specific factors or categories.
The Supreme Court clarified that there’s no need— and it’s not proper—to apply a separate test to determine whether the acts in question are so-called “special circumstances.” The proper test is the traditional respondeat-superior test: whether the employee was acting in furtherance of her employer’s business and within the scope of her employment at the time she committed the tortious act. The test as to whether a respondeat-superior claim survives summary judgment is not whether there is evidence that an employee’s use of her phone was “business-related,” but whether there is evidence that the use of the phone was in furtherance of the employer’s business and within the scope of the employee’s employment.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals was vacated and case remanded with direction. Prodigies Child Care Mgmt. v. Cott on, 2023 Ga. LEXIS 211 (Ga. October 11, 2023).
Having a knowledgeable Georgia based personal injury lawyer Atlanta residents trust and who has extensive experience in handling automobile accident cases every day, really does make a difference. Whomever you hire as your personal injury car accident lawyer must understand Georgia law, how to apply the state’s personal injury laws, and the procedural rules for initiating a claim in court.
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