Q: My company owns several motor vehicles that are sometimes used by my employees. Is the business responsible for all accidents involving these vehicles?
A: An employer's responsibility for the operation of a vehicle by an employee is determined by the principle known as "respondeat superior" (literally, "the superior must answer"). Respondeat superior means that an employer should be responsible for the negligence of an employee if the employee's actions fall within the course and scope of the employment.
Q: Aren't all acts performed by an employee during work hours done in the course and scope of the employment?
A: No. An employee can stray from the scope of employment, and under such circumstances, the employer may not be responsible for the employee's negligence. For instance, a vehicle may be given to an employee with the understanding that he/she will make a delivery and then return directly to the business place. If the employee strays from the delivery and takes the vehicle to perform a personal errand, the employer may not be found responsible for the employee's negligence while on the errand. For instance, if, after making the work delivery, the employee leaves the city to visit his/her out-of-town mother, the employer will not be responsible for the negligent operation by the employee during the unauthorized trip.
Q: What if I allow my employees to occasionally use a vehicle to drive to lunch?
A: Usually, an employer is not responsible for this kind of trip if the employer is not gaining a special benefit from the employee's use of the vehicle. If, however, the employee is on call during the lunch period, the employer may be found responsible for the employee's negligence. Similarly, if the employee has been instructed by the employer to pick up lunch for other employees, the trip may be determined to be business-related if it benefits the employer and the business.
Q: If I allow my employee to drive the vehicle home at night so I don't have to pay for parking, what is the extent of my responsibility?
A: Since the employee is required to drive the vehicle to and from work, the employer is responsible for the employee's negligence in the operation of the vehicle during those trips to and from work. Taking the vehicle home and then back to work is part of the employee's regular duties. The employer would not, however, be responsible for any personal trips the employee might take in the vehicle during the employee's off hours.
Q: What if the employee lets someone else drive the car? Is the business liable?
A: An employer who does not give the employee permission to allow another to operate the vehicle usually will not be found responsible for the negligence of the non-employee.
Q: What if I allow an employee to use the company vehicle for his or her own purpose even though I know the employee is a poor driver?
A: Liability for an accident involving an employee in these circumstances would not have anything to do with the employer/employee relationship. Instead, a person giving permission to the unsafe driver to operate a vehicle can be found responsible for the negligence of the employee on a theory of "negligent entrustment." A person who allows another to use a vehicle when he or she knows that the driver is incompetent or inexperienced can be held responsible for that driver's negligence.
Q: If I allow an employee whom I know to be a good driver to operate the business vehicle on that employee's personal errand, will I be found responsible for the employee's negligence on that trip?
A: No. Because the vehicle is being used outside of the business relationship, the principle of "respondeat superior" does not apply. The employer is not responsible for non-business-related acts of an employee. Furthermore, if the employer knows the employee to be a good driver, the theory of "negligent entrustment" doesn't create a basis for liability. An employer is not negligent when giving a good driver access to a vehicle. Mere ownership of a vehicle does not create any liability for the independent actions of another.
Q: Even if the business might be liable for an employee's negligent driving, doesn't that employee also have responsibility?
A: Yes. The negligent employee is also accountable for his or her own negligent acts. Any lawsuit or claim brought by the injured party will likely be brought against both the employer and the employee. Upon learning that a claim is being brought, both the employer's insurance carrier and the carrier for the employee should be advised of the claim to determine whether or not more than one insurance policy applies to the claim.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by Lynn A. Lazzaro, Esq., a Cleveland area attorney.