Court Explores Scope of Employment in Baton Rouge Car Accident

After working at his job as a recruiter for the U.S. Army, Sergeant Sean Fowler went out drinking with friends on the evening of February 4, 2008. He returned to the recruiting station in Covington briefly to pick up some personal belongings before heading home, as he had the following day off from work. At about 12:30 am early Mardi Gras morning, Fowler fell asleep at the wheel of his government-owned vehicle (“GOV”).

At the intersection of Harding and Howell Boulevards in Baton Rouge, he collided with a car driven by Fartima Hawkins. Fowler, who submitted to a breathalyzer test at the scene, had a blood alcohol content of 0.112%, which was over the legal limit in Louisiana of 0.08%. Hawkins, who sustained serious injuries in the crash, sued Fowler and the U.S. government in federal district court. Her complaint asserted that Fowler was acting within the course and scope of his employment at the time of the crash and, therefore, the government was liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior. The district court granted the U.S. government’s motion for summary judgment. Hawkins appealed, arguing that a genuine issue of material fact existed over whether Fowler was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit conducted a de novo review of the district court’s decision. Hawkins’s case against the federal government was premised on the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which limits responsibility for injury to that which is “caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment.” 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). Under the FTCA, the question of whether a negligent act occurred within the course and scope of a federal employee’s duty is settled according to the law of the state in which the alleged act occurred. See Garcia v. United States. Thus, the Fifth Circuit applied Louisiana jurisprudence in its analysis. Generally, an employee’s conduct is within the course and scope of his employment if it is (1) of the kind of conduct that he is employed to perform; (2)it occurs within the authorized time and space of employment; and (3) it is initiated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the employer. See Orgeron v. McDonald. The default approach in Louisiana is the “going and coming” rule: that is, when an employee is involved in a car accident on his way to or from his place of employment, it is considered to be outside of the course and scope. An exception to the rule is when the employee uses an employer-owned vehicle in the “performance of an employment responsibility.” Factors that influence the analysis include: (1) whether the employee’s use of the vehicle benefitted the employer; (2) whether the employee was subject to the authority of the employer at the time of the accident; (3) whether the employee was authorized to use the vehicle; and (4) whether the worker was motivated to use the vehicle, at least in part, by the employer’s concerns. Brooks v. Guerrero. The court found “no evidence … that Fowler’s use of the GOV was related to any employment responsibility or was of any value to the Army.” Instead, the court found that “Fowler was going home for the Mardi Gras holiday at the time of the accident” and, accordingly, was not acting within the course and scope of his duties as an Army recruiter. Although the court recognized that Fowler’s “permission to use a GOV on the evening of the accident [was] genuinely disputed,” it held that the settlement of that issue was not essential to determining the course and scope of employment. Thus, the court concluded that “no genuine issue of material fact exists that might preclude entry of summary judgment in favor of the United States.”

This case shows the state’s policy of requiring more than the showing of an employee/employer relationship to trigger the employer’s liability for the employee’s misconduct. Although the concept of respondeat superior is alive and well in Louisiana, the ability of the plaintiff to prove that the defendant’s conduct was within the course and scope of employment is essential.