Georgia Supreme Court Says Respondeat Superior Rule Repealed  by State’s Apportionment Statute

Posted in Georgia Supreme Court decisions on December 7, 2020

Georgia Supreme Court Says Respondeat Superior Rule Repealed  by State’s Apportionment Statute

In a November 2nd wrongful death decision, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed a ruling for the employer of a truck driver who hit and killed a victim on claims of negligent entrustment, hiring, training, and supervision.

The victim was struck and killed by a while he was trying to cross a street in Tifton. At trial, the administrator of his estate brought a wrongful death and personal injury action against the truck driver and his employer. The trial court dismissed the estate’s claims for punitive damages and negligent entrustment, hiring, training, and supervision. After trial on the remaining negligence claims, the jury found the truck driver and his employer were 50% at fault, and the pedestrian 50% at fault. As a result, the estate was precluded from recovering damages.

The Court of Appeals Agrees on the Respondeat Superior Rule and the Employer’s Liability

The Court of Appeals agreed and found that the estate couldn’t recover because of the employer’s admission that respondeat superior applied. Under that doctrine, when an employee causes an injury to another, the test to determine if the employer is liable is whether the employee was acting within the scope of his employment and on the business of the employer at the time of the injury.

The Court of Appeals cited a 2017 decision in which it held that if a defendant employer admits that it’s vicariously liable under the doctrine if its employee is found negligent, the employer’s entitled to dismissal on the plaintiff’s claims for negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention—unless the plaintiff has also brought a claim for punitive damages against the employer for its own independent negligence.

 The Georgia Supreme Court Reverses

However, Justice John J. Ellington and the Georgia Supreme Court held that the respondeat superior rule has been abrogated or repealed by the apportionment statute, OCGA § 51-12-33. Georgia law requires that “once liability has been established and the damages sustained by the plaintiff have been calculated, the trier of fact must then assess the relative fault of all those who contributed to the plaintiff’s injury — including the plaintiff himself — and apportion the damages based on this assessment of relative fault.” Thus, where “an action is brought against more than one person for injury to person or property,” § 51-12-33(b) states that the jury is to assign the percentages of fault for its damage award among those parties found liable.

The Court explained that the claims subject to dismissal based on the respondeat superior rule are claims that an employer-defendant breached a legal duty owed to the plaintiff that caused the plaintiff’s injury. In the case of negligent entrustment of a vehicle by an employer to an employee, liability is predicated “on a negligent act of the owner in lending his vehicle to another to drive, with actual knowledge that the driver is incompetent or habitually reckless.” Likewise, claims for negligent hiring, training, supervision, and retention are based on the employer’s alleged negligence.

The Respondeat Superior Rule Inconsistent with Apportionment Statute

The jury must be allowed to look at the fault of everyone who contributed to the alleged injury, the Court says.

As a result, the claims encompassed by the respondeat superior rule are claims that the employer is at “fault” within the meaning of the apportionment statute, and sticking with the respondeat superior rule would keep the jury from assigning fault to the employer for negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention. Any allocation of relative fault among those at fault, which may include the plaintiff, could differ if a person’s fault were excluded from consideration.

“It follows that the Respondeat Superior Rule is inconsistent with the plain language of the apportionment statute,” Justice Ellington wrote.

Even accepting that claims for negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention, in those cases where the employer concedes that it will be vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior if its employee is found negligent, are derivative of the employee’s tortious conduct to some extent, that wouldn’t relieve the jury from apportioning fault under the plain language of the apportionment statute, the Court wrote.

Justice Ellington opined that the respondeat superior rule can’t be fairly understood as a defense or immunity because it didn’t allow an employer-defendant to avoid liability for any portion of the plaintiff’s damages.

The Court found that even construing the statute strictly, a plaintiff’s claims for an employer’s negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention are allegations of fault within the meaning of the apportionment statute, and the statute requires that the jury be allowed to consider the fault of all persons who contributed to the alleged injury or damages.

“Adherence to the plain and explicit terms of OCGA § 51-12-33 requires the elimination of the Respondeat Superior Rule,” Justice Ellington wrote. Quynn v. Hulsey, 2020 Ga. LEXIS 761 *; 2020 WL 6385781 (Ga. November 2, 2020).

Takeaway

The Georgia Supreme Court held that the respondeat superior rule has been abrogated by OCGA § 51-12-33, and that the Court of Appeals erred in holding otherwise. That statute requires that the jury be allowed to consider the fault of every party who contributed to the alleged injury or damages—and that Respondeat Superior Rule can’t allow an employer to escape such consideration.

If you have questions about respondeat superior, the Georgia apportionment statute, and whether a trucking company may be liable for your accident, contact experienced Atlanta truck accident lawyers at Tobin Injury Law.