Scope of Employment Defense in Work Vehicle Accidents

If the at-fault driver was “on the job” at the time of the collision, their employer may be liable for their negligence pursuant to a legal doctrine called “respondeat superior.” Under that doctrine, an employer can be held liable for any negligent or wrongful actions of their employees that occur during the course of their employment. For example, if a truck driver causes an accident while driving a company-owned truck during working hours, the employer may be held liable for any damages or injuries resulting from the accident, even if the employer was not directly involved in the accident.

The purpose of the respondeat superior doctrine is to ensure that victims of negligent or wrongful actions by employees have a means of seeking compensation from a financially responsible party, rather than being limited to seeking damages from the employee personally. By holding employers responsible for the actions of their employees, the doctrine also provides an incentive for employers to properly train and supervise their employees to prevent accidents and other harmful conduct.

It’s important to note that the respondeat superior doctrine only applies when the employee was acting within the scope of their employment. If an employee engages in a wrongful or negligent act that is unrelated to their job duties, the employer may not be held liable under that doctrine.

A recent Georgia Court of Appeals case (Campbell v. Courtesy Ford, Inc., Ga. App. No. A22A1739 (2023) held that a car dealership owner was not liable for its employee’s negligence when the employee caused a car collision while driving a “demonstrator vehicle,” because the employee was engaged in a “personal activity” at the time of the collision.

Case Facts

Campbell v. Courtesy Ford, Inc. arose from a car accident between a vehicle driven by plaintiff Todd Campbell and a demonstrator vehicle driven by defendant Robert Young. Mr. Young was employed by defendant Courtesy Ford, Inc. (“Courtesy”), which owned the demonstrator vehicle. Mr. Young was not required to use the demonstrator vehicle as a condition of his employment. There were no company logos, names, stickers, or signs on the front side of the vehicle assigned to Mr. Young.

On the day of the collision, Mr. Young and Courtesy’s finance director got into an argument and the finance director sent Mr. Young home for the day. Mr. Young left work in his demonstrator vehicle, but rather than go straight home, he first drove approximately 45 minutes to a Mexican restaurant on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard to get takeout. After picking up his food, Mr. Young drove home on Interstate 285 in heavy, slow-moving traffic. Shortly before he exited I-285, he briefly turned his attention away from the road. When he looked back up, he saw that traffic had come to a stop. But, it was too late for him to avoid rear-ending Mr. Campbell’s vehicle.

Mr. Campbell and his wife proceeded to file a lawsuit against Mr. Young and Courtesy alleging that he suffered injuries and his wife loss of consortium as a result of Mr. Young’s negligence. In doing so, they alleged that Courtesy was liable for Mr. Young’s negligence under the grounds of vicarious liability (a.k.a. respondeat superior). Courtesy filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Mr. Young was not acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident, and therefore, Courtesy was not vicariously liable for his negligence. The trial court held a hearing on the matter before ultimately granting Courtesy’s motion. The plaintiffs appealed that decision.

Georgia Court of Appeals Decision

The Court of Appeals observed that “generally speaking, an employee traveling to or from work is ‘not in the course of his employment but rather is engaged in a personal activity.’” That being said, when a tort occurs as the result of a vehicle collision in which the employee is driving his employer’s vehicle, the employer’s liability must be analyzed under the burden-shifting framework created by the Supreme Court of Georgia. Under that analytical framework, “a presumption arises that the employee was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the collision, and the burden is on the employer to show otherwise.” An employer may overcome that presumption by “presenting uncontradicted evidence showing that the employee was not acting in the course and scope of employment” at the time of the collision.

Mr. Young testified that he was not acting within the course and scope of his employment with Courtesy at the time of the collision. He explained that he had been sent home by his supervisor, stopped off at a restaurant to pick up some takeout food, and was driving to his home when he rear-ended Mr. Campbell’s vehicle.

The Court of Appeals held that that uncontradicted evidence was sufficient to rebut the presumption that Mr. Young was driving within the course and scope of his employment. Consequently, the burden shifted to Mr. Campbell to show some other facts demonstrating that Mr. Young was indeed acting within the scope of his employment.

Mr. Campbell pointed to the language in Courtesy’s demonstrator vehicle policy. For instance, the policy stated that “[a]s part of the high visibility effort the employee is required to use the demonstrator vehicle in his personal travels within the sales area (up to [a] 75 mile radius)” and “use of any demonstrator is purely for the convenience and benefit of Courtesy.” Mr. Campbell argued that policy language demonstrated that any use of the demonstrator vehicle by an employee within the 75-mile radius of the dealership falls within the scope of employee regardless of the employee’s intended purpose or destination.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with Mr. Campbell’s argument for three reasons. First, the demonstrator policy was an internal company document whose primary purpose was “to govern an employee’s work and personal use of a dealership vehicle.” The notion that it somehow resulted in Courtesy assuming liability for any action taken by an employee in operating such a vehicle-no matter how far afield it may be from the scope of his or her employment-“strains credulity” and has no basis in Georgia law, said the Court.

Second, the demonstrator policy “is hardly a model of clarity.” One the one hand, it does contain language indicating that an employee’s use of a company vehicle is for the benefit of the dealership. But the policy also used other language that seemingly acknowledged the personal benefits derived by employees from using such vehicles and declared that they were responsible for: “paying taxes imposed upon him/her as a result of personal use of the demonstrator [vehicle],” “any collision damage up to the amount of the insurance deductible on the demonstrator vehicle assigned to him/her,” “their own personal transportation to and from work daily,” and “any deductibles, losses or damages to their assigned demonstrator not covered by [Courtesy’s] insurance.”

Finally, the Court held, even if Georgia law allowed for a document like the demonstrator policy to impose a third party beneficiary type of liability on a company (which it does not), the basis for doing so here would be “especially tenuous”-i.e. the incidental advertising benefit derived by Courtesy from an employee driving one of its demonstrator vehicles around or near the sales area.

For the foregoing reasons, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to enter summary judgment in Courtesy’s favor.

Distinguishable Case

Our law firm recently obtained a successful result in an auto collision case against a car dealership and its employee under slightly different facts. In our case, the dealership provided a pick-up truck to its employee that the employee used to transport dealership vehicles to customers and other dealerships. There were no company logos, names, stickers, or signs on the pick-up truck.

On the afternoon preceding the collision, the dealership contacted the employee and informed him that he would have a delivery run the following day. The employee drove his personal vehicle to the dealership and exchanged it for the dealership’s pick-up truck. From there, the employee drove to a Taco Bell and ate dinner. After dinner, the employee headed to the gas station to fill up the truck in preparation for his delivery the following day. While he was en route to the gas station, the employee failed to yield to our client, a pedestrian, while she was crossing the road and injured her. Our client suffered broken bones in her pelvic region, as well as a fractured rib and a fractured cervical vertebra.

The dealership initially contended that its employee was not in the scope of employment at the time of the collision because the collision occurred after the dealership was closed for the evening and the employee wasn’t transporting a vehicle at the time of the collision. However, the employee testified that he was on a “business errand” at the time of the collision because he was headed to fuel up the company vehicle with gas in preparation for a delivery at the time of the collision. Moreover, the employee’s supervisor testified that if he was en route to fill up the vehicle with gas, he was on “company business.”

As a result, it was clear in our case that the employee caused the wreck while he was within the scope of his employment even though he had run a personal errand shortly before the collision and he was not transporting a dealership vehicle at the time of the collision.

Our Atlanta Work Vehicle Accident Lawyers Can Help You

At Graham Scofield Injury Lawyers, our Atlanta car accident lawyers have successfully resolved many work vehicle accident claims. If you were injured in a car wreck caused by a driver that was driving a work vehicle, we can help you.

Call us today at (404) 939-9470 to discuss your car accident case. Also, you may fill-out our online contact form to schedule a free case review with our team. If you’ve got questions, we’ve got the answers.

"When I felt all hope was lost, I contacted Graham Scofield to see if he could represent me. He immediately called me back and thoroughly reviewed with me the case. He was the most patient, kind, sympathetic and the upmost professional attorney throughout the entire process. He was also extremely knowledgeable about the law and was creative when the case worked through the twists and turns. He was also a heck of a fighter for me and got me more settlement than I was expecting. I only wish I called him sooner! Thank you so much Graham, you are an amazing lawyer!!"
Read more testimonials