What is the Respondeat Superior Doctrine?

Posted in Georgia Supreme Court decisions,truck accidents on November 29, 2020

An experienced Atlanta truck accident lawyer at Tobin Injury Law will tell you that a trucking company may be held responsible for an accident involving one of its semi drivers. This is due to the a legal doctrine called Respondeat Superior Doctrine. To learn more about this theory of recovery, read below about a recent decision in a wrongful death action in Georgia.

Ethan Hobbs filed suit against Integrated Fire Protection (“IFP”) for his mother’s death after an accident. Hobbs appealed the trial court’s dismissing his claim of negligence under the respondeat superior doctrine.

The Background of the Case

At the time of the accident, the boy’s mother (Victoria) was dating Jason Johnson, who worked for IFP, a fire and life safety company. In connection with his employment, the company provided him with a company vehicle.

The company policy was that its vehicles were to be used for business purposes only, but the company president acknowledged that IFP’s policy manual stated that “employees may use [c]ompany vehicles for non-business purposes only with the prior approval of their manager.”

The policy manual also contained the following provision:

“Employees are not permitted, under any circumstances, to operate a Company vehicle, or a personal vehicle for Company business, when any impairment causes the employee to be unable to drive safely. This prohibition includes circumstances in which the employee is temporarily unable to operate a vehicle safely or legally because of illness, medication or intoxication.”

Johnson signed documentation acknowledging that he received a copy the policy manual. Even so, the company president emphasized that he’d never let Johnson take a company vehicle and go to a bar and drink alcohol in the vehicle. But Johnson said always they let him use the truck in his neighborhood without obtaining prior approval.

The Accident

On June 13, 2015, at about 10 p.m., Johnson and Victoria left his home in the company vehicle and went to a bar. Johnson admitted that he’d had a “few” beers, and when Victoria left the bar after an incident with another patron, Johnson drove off in IFP’s vehicle to look for her.

As Johnson drove in search for Victoria, he spotted her walking along the roadway. He left his truck on the road and ran across to where she was walking.

While driving along the same road, Dawn Remington and her passenger Denise Martin—who were also drinking at the bar—came upon Johnson’s truck which she said was parked “in the middle of the road.” As Remington drove around the truck, Martin saw Victoria in the road and then she heard a “noise.” Martin told Remington, “I think you just hit somebody.”

Victoria died at the scene of the accident. Remington was indicted for DUI and first degree homicide by vehicle. Johnson was indicted on involuntary manslaughter, reckless conduct, and DUI.

The Son’s Claim Against the Employee’s Company

Victoria’s son argued that the trial court erred in dismissing his claim for damages against IFP because there were issues remaining as to whether the company was liable for Johnson’s actions under the respondeat superior doctrine.

Presiding Judge M. Yvette Miller of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote that under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer can be held vicariously liable for the negligence of an employee when the employee is acting within the course and scope of his employment. Vicarious liability is when one party is held partly responsible for the unlawful actions of a third party.

Judge Miller explained that two elements must be present for a master (employer) to be liable for his servant’s (employee) actions under respondeat superior:

  1. The employee must be in furtherance of the employer’s business; and
  2. The employee must be acting within the scope of his employer’s business.

If an employee commits an act unrelated to his employment, the employer isn’t liable. And if a tortious act is committed that’s not in furtherance of the employer’s business, but instead is only for personal reasons not connected to the authorized business of the employer, the employer also isn’t liable.

Judge Miller acknowledged that Georgia law says that where a tort happens as a result of a vehicle collision in which the employee was driving his employer’s vehicle, there’s a presumption that the employee was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the collision. But the employer can overcome this by presenting uncontradicted evidence showing that the employee wasn’t acting in the course and scope of his employment.

In this case, the facts showed that Johnson wasn’t working at the time of the accident but had instead left a bar to search for Victoria. Because of this, there was no evidence that he was working at the time of the accident and was acting within the scope of his employment.

Also, Hobbs didn’t present any evidence that would show that Johnson had been called to duty and was acting pursuant to that duty at the time of the accident. Hobbs failed to point to any evidence to show that IFP required Johnson to drive the company vehicle at any period of time. Without this evidence, IFP couldn’t be held vicariously liable for Johnson’s torts.

What if the Truck Driver Runs a Quick Errand While Working?

The Court cited a 2011 Georgia Supreme Court case that stated that if an employee, while engaged in the business of his employer, makes a “slight deviation” for his own benefit, the employer is still liable when the act is “so closely connected” with the employer’s affairs that, even if the employee gets some benefit from it, “it may nevertheless fairly be regarded as within the scope of his employment.”

However, Georgia law also states that if the employee departs from his employer’s business—even for a short time—to perform an act “entirely disconnected” from business, and injury results from the employee’s independent voluntary act, then the employee is liable for his own tortious conduct. In that case, the wrong isn’t pinned on the employer. That’s because the employee’s act was “outside the scope of the master’s business and not done in the prosecution of the master’s business by the servant.”

Judge Miller said that the Supreme Court of Georgia has extended this rule to “on-call” employees. So, even though Hobbs tried to show that Johnson was acting within the scope of his employment by providing evidence that he was an “on call” employee, that IFP gave him a company vehicle to for emergency service calls, and that he was expected to be available for after-hours service calls, the question is whether Johnson was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. There’s no respondeat superior liability if the activity producing the injury was beyond the scope of that employment. As such, Johnson’s purely personal actions of leaving a bar to search for his girlfriend were in no way within the scope of his employment.

What if the Company was Okay with the Truck Driver’s Conduct?

Victoria’s son also argued that even if Johnson was outside the scope of his employment at the time of the accident, there were still issues about whether IFP ratified or failed to repudiate his conduct.

But Judge Miller pointed to an earlier decision that held “where an employee is acting exclusively for himself and is not acting at all for the employer, and does not profess to be acting for the employer, there is no such thing as a master assuming by ratification liability for the personal act of his employee.”

Johnson’s actions of leaving a bar to search for Victoria wasn’t in furtherance of any business connected to IFP, and the company thus couldn’t be found to have ratified Johnson’s conduct. Even in the company knew that Johnson had previously used the vehicle for personal reasons, Hobbs couldn’t show that IFP knew that Johnson had driven the vehicle to the bar or that IFP had approved of such use of its vehicle in the past or at the time of the accident.

The Court of Appeals held that IFP wasn’t liable under the respondeat superior doctrine, and the trial court therefore properly dismissed the son’s claim. Hobbs v. Integrated Fire Protection, Inc. 2020 Ga. App. LEXIS 664 *; 2020 WL 6795966 (Ga. App. October 21, 2020).

Takeaway

A truck company may be liable for an accident victim’s injuries under the respondeat superior doctrine, but the victim must show:

  1. The employee was acting in furtherance of the employer’s business; and
  2. The employee was acting within the scope of his employer’s business.

Questions about respondeat superior and whether a trucking company may be liable for your accident?

Contact experienced Atlanta truck accident lawyers at Tobin Injury Law.