“As a general rule, employers are vicariously liable for any motor vehicle accidents caused by their employees.”
In 2009, Eduardo Delgado, an employee of Xerox, was driving a company vehicle when he struck and killed 63-year-old Elvira Gomez in California as she crossed the street on her way home from church. Delgado was driving under the influence of alcohol at the time and had a history of at least two prior DUIs. Mrs. Gomez’s adult children and husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Xerox, arguing among other things that Xerox was negligent in allowing Delgado to drive a vehicle without first checking his Motor Vehicle Report (“MVR”)—a fact admitted by Xerox—which would have revealed his prior DUIs. In fact, had Xerox checked Delgado’s driving record, it would have discovered that his license was actually suspended due to his DUIs. After a lengthy trial, the case ultimately settled, with Xerox agreeing to pay Ms. Gomez’s family $5 million for their loss.
“The most common direct-liability theories in highway-accident cases are negligent hiring, negligent selection, and negligent entrustment.” Unfortunately, the Xerox case is not an outlier; it is one of many in which companies have been forced to pay millions of dollars in damages due to accidents caused by the employees or contractors they put behind the wheel. The legal theories upon which these companies are held liable vary from case to case and from state to state, but they share some common themes.
As a general rule, employers¹ are vicariously liable for any motor vehicle accidents caused by their employees under the doctrine of respondeat superior, which imputes the conduct of the employee to his/her employer under agency principles. Of course, there could be exceptions to the rule, including, for example, if the employee is operating the vehicle outside the scope of his/her employment when the accident occurs. But generally speaking, employers—and their insurers—will be held responsible for any damages stemming from their employees’ accidents.
At the same time, an employer could also be directly liable to the injured party(ies) if the employer’s own independent negligence was the proximate cause of the injuries.² This liability is distinct from vicarious liability in the sense that the latter is premised on the employer’s master/servant relationship with its employee, whereas the former is premised on the employer’s own actions or inactions. This type of “direct” liability is at the heart of this paper, and it’s precisely the issue that Xerox faced in its lawsuit. It is also the type of liability that can open the door to punitive damages (i.e., those meant to punish the company for its egregious conduct) on top of compensatory damages already awarded to the injured party. The most common direct-liability theories in high-way-accident cases are negligent hiring, negligent selection, and negligent entrustment. Under these theories, the injured party alleges that the company was negligent in allowing its employee/subcontractor to operate a motor vehicle, and, but for that decision, the accident would never have occurred.
“Companies should be doing something to ensure the individuals who drive vehicles in connection with their employment are safe.” Often, the company’s alleged negligence is premised on its failure to adequately vet the employee’s driving history before allowing him/her to operate a vehicle on the company’s behalf. In Xerox’s case, for example, the plaintiffs alleged that the company was negligent in failing to check its employee’s MVR, which would have revealed his prior DUIs and the fact that his license was suspended. What precisely is a company’s duty with respect to vetting its drivers before allowing them to operate a vehicle? Unfortunately, that’s a question with no definitive answer—one often left to the judge or jury to decide what a “reasonable” company would have done under the circumstances. What’s clear, however, is that companies should be doing something to ensure the individuals who drive vehicles in connection with their employment are safe. And the most prudent something involves verifying the driver has a valid license and checking his/her MVR for prior violations/accidents, at a minimum. As addressed in the next section, for companies that are subject to federal and/or state motor carrier safety regulations, this is a legal requirement. But even for those who are not, it is best practice.
¹ Companies that engage independent contractors to operate motor vehicles on their behalf rather than employees may not be vicariously liable for the contractor’s operation of those vehicles, but this depends on a number of factors, including, for example, whether the state law at issue considers the operation of a motor vehicle to be an “inherently dangerous” activity and whether companies have “non-delegable duties” with respect to their operation. Additionally, pursuant to federal and state leasing regulations, motor carriers who contract with independent-contractor owner-operators are generally vicariously liable for any accidents caused by those owner-operators as a matter of law. And regardless of whether companies utilize employees or independent contractors to operate vehicle, the companies could still be directly liable for damages stemming from the companies’ own negligence.
² Some state laws, but certainly not all, provide that an employer who is vicariously liable for its employee’s conduct cannot be separately liable to the injured plaintiff under a theory of direct liability.