No Employer Liability When Employee Had Car Accident After Work

When a woman had left work early and was on a completely personal errand at the time she caused an automobile accident, her employer could not be held liable for her actions.

In Gunter v. Estate of Armstrong, No. E2018-01473-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 12, 2019), plaintiff sued the employer of Jamie Armstrong after Armstrong’s vehicle crossed the centerline of a road and caused a car accident, injuring plaintiff. Just before the accident, Armstrong had been working a shift for defendant employer as an in-home caretaker. Armstrong’s replacement showed up early, and Armstrong decided to leave her shift thirty minutes before it ended. This was apparently common practice, although she could technically be called back into work during the remaining thirty minutes. When Armstrong left work, she decided to go get her male friend coffee, and the accident occurred while she was en route to this personal errand.

When Armstrong had been hired, defendant employer had run a drug screen and a TBI background check, both of which came back clear. Defendant did not know that Armstrong had any issues with prescription drug use. On the morning of the accident, the employee who relieved Armstrong said that she seemed very tired and offered to drive her home, but did not believe that she was under the influence.

Plaintiff filed suit against defendant employer, arguing that the employer should be held liable for the accident. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The first issue on appeal was whether defendant could be held liable under the theory of respondeat superior. “[U]nder the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer may be held vicariously liable for torts committed by its employee within the course and scope of his or her employment.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). If, however, an employee “steps or turns aside from his employer’s work or business to serve some purpose of his own, unconnected with the employer’s business,” the doctrine will not apply. (internal citation and quotation omitted). The Court ruled that the facts of this case “do not support the inference that [Armstrong] was engaging in activity that benefitted [defendant] at the time of the accident or that her employment created the necessity to travel to retrieve coffee for a friend.” The Court concluded that Armstrong was “not acting within the scope of her employment when she left her place of employment to pursue a personal errand unrelated to work.” Further, the argument that she could still technically be called into work had no bearing on this ruling, as the Court reasoned that it had previously “declined to extend liability to employers in circumstances when an employee was ‘on call,’ rather than actively completing tasks for the benefit of his or her employer, at the time that the employee caused tortious harm.” (internal citation omitted).

Second, the Court considered plaintiff’s negligent hiring claim. “[A] claim of negligent hiring arises only when a particular unfitness of a job applicant creates a danger to others which the employer should have known.” (internal citation and quotations omitted). Pointing to the facts that the drug screen and background check came back clear and that Armstrong signed the company’s drug-free workplace policy, the Court found that defendant “had no knowledge of or reason to know that hiring [Armstrong] would pose such a risk.” In addition, the Court ruled that plaintiff failed to show that defendant’s hiring of Armstrong was the proximate cause of her injury, as “the hiring of an employee is not the proximate cause of his acts committed outside the scope of employment.” (internal citation and quotations omitted).

Third, the Court analyzed plaintiff’s negligent supervision claim. The Court pointed out that, as part of this claim, plaintiff had to “demonstrate that [defendant] could foresee, or through the exercise of reasonable diligence should have foreseen, the general manner in which the injury or loss occurred.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). In this case, Armstrong’s “employment record with [defendant] offered no indication of a propensity for drug use or intoxication at work.” While defendant appeared tired when relieved that morning, she had just worked an overnight shift and had had an appropriate amount of time off before the overnight. During Armstrong’s tenure with defendant, there were no complaints or problems indicating that she might have a substance abuse problem, and the Court thus affirmed the finding that plaintiff’s “injuries were not reasonably foreseeable by [defendant].”

Finally, the Court briefly noted that this case failed on a general negligence claim as well. The Court pointed out that “no liability attaches to an employer when its employee causes an automobile accident after leaving the place of employment in a known intoxicated state, absent a showing that an employer in some way contributed to its employee’s intoxication.” (internal citation omitted). Here, Armstrong was driving on a public road in her own vehicle, and she had left her place of employment early without express permission. Nothing in her employment record indicated that she was at risk of substance abuse, and there had been no previous “red flags.” Accordingly, defendant “could not reasonably foresee that [Armstrong] would injure [plaintiff] in an automobile accident after she left the workplace.”

Based on the facts presented here, pinning liability on the employer, in this case, was unlikely.

            NOTE: To aid lawyers in giving clients guidance about how long it takes to receive an opinion after oral argument in the appellate courts, we are going to start sharing that information with readers.   Please understand that the length of time that elapses between oral argument and the date the opinion is released is dependent on a multitude of factors, not the least of which is the complexity of the issues presented.  In this case, the opinion was released less than three months after oral argument.