California Court Holds Surviving Family Members Failed to Establish Triable Issues of Material Fact Overcoming Summary Judgment for Employer in Deadly Vehicle Collision Lawsuit

Recently, the California Court of Appeal analyzed an appeal brought by plaintiffs in a California wrongful death case.  The plaintiffs included the daughter of a deceased motor vehicle accident victim, as well as the victim’s parents and fiance. In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendant driver and the employer were legally at fault for the accident that caused the victim’s death.  They alleged they suffered injuries and damages due to the defendant driver when his vehicle struck the vehicle of the victim, resulting in her death. The plaintiffs brought claims for motor vehicle negligence and general negligence, as well as a survivorship action.  The plaintiffs’ claims against the employer were based on the doctrine of respondeat superior. The employer moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion, dismissing the employer from the case and leaving only the defendant driver. The plaintiffs appealed.

On review, the appellate court stated that they view the evidence in a light favorable to the plaintiffs, since they oppose the summary judgment motion.  Here, the applicable law involves the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, which holds employers vicariously liable for the tortious conduct of employees within the scope of their employment.  According to California law, the “scope of employment” has been broadly interpreted.   Generally, those acts that involve the employee’s own business may remove them from the scope of employment unless it appears they could have served their employer.

An exception to the respondeat superior legal doctrine is the “going and coming” rule. According to this doctrine, employees who commute to work are not considered to be within the scope of employment. Their employer, therefore, is not liable for the employee’s torts.  However, according to the special errand exception, those employees who are performing an errand as part of their regular duties, or at the request of their employer, may be found to be within the scope of employment.  California law requires that errands be part of the employee’s regular duties, or undertaken at the request of the employer.

The appellate court stated that the defendant driver was operating the vehicle and owned the vehicle that hit the victim.  The theory of the employer’s liability is respondeat superior.   First, the court stated that since the defendant driver worked as a shift lead, and he was tasked with hiring, he could have requested himself to perform a special errand on his employer’s behalf.

Here, the court stated that for his own reasons, the defendant drove in the pre-dawn hours to the employer’s premises.  He had not been requested to drive there, and there was no evidence that the employer authorized his trip by paying travel expenses. The court stated that while the plaintiffs alleged that as a supervisorial employee, the defendant could request himself to run a special errand, they would not “expand” the special errand exception to the going and coming rule in this manner.

In addition, the court stated that simply by receiving emails regarding a hiring crisis, the defendant was not expected to drive to work early in the morning on December 13.  Even if it was inferred that the defendant read the emails and found them to be a request that he assist with hiring, there was no specific request for him to return to work at a certain day or time.

Finally, the court stated that the defendant’s trip to his employer was not part of his regular duties of hiring.  On the defendant’s days off, he was not requested to drive to work to review resumes.  While the plaintiffs pointed to evidence that the defendant sometimes worked overtime and attended off-shift leadership meetings, the court stated this did not support a reasonable inference he was regularly expected to come into the office on days off.

The court affirmed the judgment in favor of the employer, finding that the plaintiffs had not established triable issues of material fact supporting an exception that overcame summary judgment for the employer.

At Sharifi Firm, we represent family members facing the loss of a loved one in a tragic motor vehicle accident. Throughout Southern California, our wrongful death attorneys are available to help grieving family members pursuing legal rights to compensation.  To schedule a free consultation, call our office at 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeal Holds in Favor of Injured Motorcyclist Hit by Taxi Driver in West Hollywood; Taxi Company Vicariously Liable for Driver’s Acts, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, February 20, 2017

California Court of Appeals Rules on Liability of Motor Carrier for Negligence of Contract Driver, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 13, 2015

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