Employer Had No Duty to Prevent Employee From Leaving Store in His Own Car

In Thompson v. Best Buy Stores, L.P., No. E2015-02304-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 28, 2016), the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling that an employer had no duty to prevent an employee from leaving the premises in his own car.

Plaintiff was an employee at a Best Buy store (“defendant”). Before work one day, plaintiff received a package in the mail containing “a chemical cousin of valium,” which he had ordered off the internet. Plaintiff testified that he took three drops of the substance before reporting to work that day, and that “he remembers clocking in, but after that, he has no memory of anything else that happened that day.”

During work, one of plaintiff’s co-workers told the assistant sales manager on duty that “plaintiff was acting slow, tired and not very responsive.” The manager made the decision that plaintiff should not operate a piece of heavy machinery in the store warehouse, and he eventually told plaintiff to clock out and end his shift early. The manager noted at trial that no one at the store mentioned or suspected that plaintiff was on any drugs. He also stated that he did not tell plaintiff he had to go home or leave the premises, but simply to clock out. After plaintiff clocked out, he apparently got into his car to head home and was in a car accident, wherein his car hit a median wall then bounced into a pickup truck, totaling both vehicles.

At trial, the police officer who responded to the accident testified that plaintiff told him at the scene that he thought the wreck was caused by a blowout. The officer stated that he “saw no indication that plaintiff was under the influence of an intoxicant,” that he was “responsive and conversed normally,” and that he would have let plaintiff drive away if the car had been drivable.

Contradicting the other witnesses’ accounts, plaintiff’s mother testified at trial that, upon arriving home, plaintiff was stumbling and “talking out of his head.” She stated that she had to admit him to a mental health institute the next morning, where he then spent several days.

Just a few months after the accident, plaintiff filed this action alleging negligent entrustment. “Plaintiff’s theory was that defendant was liable for negligent entrustment of his own vehicle under the circumstances.” The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant, finding that the defendant here had “no control or right of control” over the motor vehicle at issue, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court began its analysis by quoting extensively from a very similar 2001 case, Lett v. Collis Foods, Inc., 60 S.W.3d 95 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). In the Lett case, a Waffle House employee showed up for work obviously intoxicated. The restaurant “tried to sober her up and offered her a ride home, which she refused.” On her way home, the employee was in a wreck and injured plaintiff. Plaintiff then brought suit against Waffle House, alleging it had a “duty to a third person to prevent an intoxicated employee from leaving work and driving home.” The Lett Court reasoned:

A crucial question is whether [defendant] had the means and ability to control [employee’s] conduct. If it did not have the means or ability to control the conduct in question, then [defendant] had no duty to control the same, and it cannot be held to be negligent for failing to do so. …We find that the facts of the instant case [ ] do not present affirmative acts sufficient to impose a duty upon [defendant] to control the conduct of [employee], who was off-premises and off-duty as well. She arrived at work intoxicated, and [defendant] did not contribute to, condone, or seek to accommodate, her intoxication. It did not require her to drive home…In sum, the employer did not provide her mobility she otherwise did not have; it did not encourage her to drive home; and it did not contribute to the condition that made it unsafe for her to drive. … [Defendant] had no legal right to tie her up or ‘sit on her’ or otherwise prevent her from driving away in her own car. From a legal standpoint, it did not have the means or ability to control its employee when she made the decision to drive a vehicle in her condition. …The employer’s passive acquiescence in her leaving the premises and driving away in her own vehicle, acts they had no legal right to prevent, is simply not enough to impose a duty on this employer who was totally blameless in the condition.

Comparing the instant case to the Lett case and noting the similarities, the Court of Appeals here said that “in Lett, we held that an employer had no duty to an innocent third party. It would be plainly absurd now to hold that an employer has a duty to prevent injury to an employee who voluntarily went to work in an allegedly impaired state.” The Court held that “Lett is controlling , and mandates the conclusion that defendant had no legal duty to prevent plaintiff from voluntarily getting in his car and leaving his workplace under the undisputed circumstances.”

Further analyzing the negligent entrustment claim, the Court noted that “[a] negligent entrustment is committed at the moment when control of a chattel is relinquished by an entrustor to an incompetent user.” (quoting West v. E. Tenn. Pioneer Oil Co., 172 S.W.3d 545 (Tenn. 2005)). Here, because the car at issue was plaintiff’s own vehicle, the Court ruled that “Defendant never had control of the vehicle, so it cannot be said that it entrusted the car to plaintiff.” Because plaintiff could not establish an element of his negligent entrustment claim, summary judgment was affirmed.

This case is a good read for anyone preparing for a negligent entrustment case. It would be interesting, though, to know what facts might sway the Court to decide the duty issue differently. What if the intoxicating substance had been consumed at, but not necessarily provided by, the employer? What if the employer had demanded the employee go home rather than simply clock out? What if the vehicle in question had been a company-provided car? Between this case and Lett, it seems that employers in Tennessee are currently rather protected in situations like these, but as new factual scenarios arise new legal conclusions could follow.

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