California Appellate Court Reverses Judgment in Favor of Injured Pedestrian, Holds Employer not Liable for Employee’s Tortious Conduct on Commute Home from Work

In a recent opinion, the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, held that the employer of an at-fault defendant driver could not be held liable for injuries sustained by a plaintiff injured in a motor vehicle collision.  The appellate court reviewed the jury’s finding that the employer was liable on a theory of respondeat superior, ultimately holding that there was no evidence that the defendant employee had been acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident.

Leopoldo Jorge, Jr., brought a lawsuit against Almir Da Fonseca and the Culinary Institute of America after he was injured when struck by a car driven by Mr. Da Fonseca.  Mr. Da Fonseca worked as a chef instructor at the Culinary Institute. He had finished his shift and was driving home, in his own car, at the time of the accident.

A jury found the Culinary Institute was liable for Mr. Jorge’s injuries. They applied the theory of respondeat superior. The Culinary Institute then moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing there was no evidence supporting the jury’s finding that Da Fonseca was in the scope of his employment at the time of the accident.  The court denied the motion, and the Culinary Institute appealed, arguing that they could not be liable for injuries caused by Mr. Da Fonseca’s negligence because Mr. Da Fonseca was not acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident.

The appellate court stated that the theory of respondeat superior holds an employer vicariously liable for the tortious conduct of employees within the scope of their employment.  Courts have also resolved that an employee’s commute to and from work is outside the scope of employment, such that employers are not liable for those torts committed during this period. This rule is called the “going and coming rule,” and there are exceptions, specifically, when the employer benefits from the employee’s trip.

In the case at hand, the issue was whether the “required vehicle exception” applied, such that the Culinary Institute could be held liable for the conduct of an employee during his commute. The court reviewed cases involving the required vehicle exception, as well as the California jury instruction relevant to this exception to the going and coming rule.  The issue framed by the appellate court was whether evidence supported the jury’s finding that Mr. Da Fonseca was acting in the course of his employment when he struck Mr. Jorge.

The requirement that an employee use their vehicle may be express or implied by the employer.  In this case, the court stated there was no evidence Mr. Da Fonseca was required to use his car for work purposes.  He used his vehicle to get to and from his off-campus commitments.  It was not required that it be available during his work day for work-related duties.  Furthermore, the court stated the evidence from trial indicated that Mr. Da Fonseca was not required to use his private vehicle and that he could have taken public transportation to work.

The court stated that the accident took place when Mr. Da Fonseca was commuting home from his duties as a chef instructor, and this commute was not connected to his duties at the Culinary Institute. The court also noted that the evidence did not support a finding of liability on behalf of the Culinary Institute simply because Mr. Da Fonseca used his vehicle to transport his chef’s knives and jackets.

The court reversed the judgment and order that denied the Culinary Institute’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.  The appellate court directed the trial court to enter an order granting the motion.

The car accident attorneys at Sharifi Firm provide legal representation to victims and their families throughout Southern California in personal injury claims for compensation. Contact our office today for a free consultation at 866-422-7222 or complete our online form.

More Blog Posts:

Appellate Court Holds Sham Pleading Did Not Apply in California Car Accident Case When Plaintiffs Were Unclear on Factual Basis for Liability, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, July 22, 2016

California Court of Appeals Allows Cross-Defendant to Recover Costs in Car Accident Lawsuit, Remands to Determine Reasonable and Necessary Costs, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, February 22, 2016

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