Under the respondeat superior legal theory, an employer can be held liable for his employees’ acts that occur within his scope of employment. This means that a truck company, for example, may be held responsible for an accident caused by one its drivers who was speeding or intoxicated while driving his route. This doctrine can be complicated when questions arise as to whether or not the employee was within the scope of his employment, or whether the person who caused the injurious accident was in fact an employee.
To determine scope of employment, one must look to what the employer pays the employee to do and what, exactly, the employee was doing when the accident occured. If a truck driver deviated from his route to go to a bar, for example, then it will likely be determined the driver was engaged in frolic for his own benefit and therefore was not within the scope of his employment. This means if an accident occurs while that truck driver is on his way to the bar, then the truck company will not be held liable. If, on the other hand, the truck driver had to deviate from his standard route because of a flooded road, then the detour is still considered to be to the employer’s benefit and within his scope of employment. An accident that occurs while on detour will still be imputed to the truck company.
A recently decided case by Court of Appeal for the First Circuit helps illustrate issues of determining the employee/employer relationship. The importance of this aspect is if the party responsible for the accident is found to be an independent contractor rather than an employee, liability cannot be placed on the employer. So, in the case heard on appeal by the First Circuit, a woman who was injured by the negligent driving of a delivery van driver sought to join the subcontracting broker and the delivery service that hired the individuals responsible for the accident. To determine whether an independent contractor relationship existed, the court looked to case law and the facts before it.
According to case law, several factors must be considered to determine whether an employee or independent contractor relationship exists. The most important factor is the amount of control exercised by the employer over the worker. An independent contractor typically has freedom of action and choice when it comes to the task to be performed, often leaving the independent contractor to decide his own methods without employer supervision. Also, an independent contractor is typically subject to a specific price for an overall undertaking that is specific in duration, rather being subject to termination at will.
In the case at hand, the court found an independent contractor relationship existed, and thus held that the employers could not be held liable. In addition to having signed an independent contractor agreement, which is not itself dispositive, the workers in question had very little communication with the employers. Instead, the workers set their own delivery routes and schedules and worked when necessary. Therefore, since the employers lacked an exercise of control over the employees, they could not be held responsible for the employees’ acts.
Lawsuits involving accidents can be extremely complicated, especially when the negligent driver is operating a company vehicle. A competent, experienced attorney can walk a victim through the lawsuit process and help determine if compensation is achievable from the employee, the employer, or both. If you have been injured in a car accident, please contact the Berniard Law Firm.