Jorge v. Culinary Inst. of Am. – Employer Can Only Be Liable for Crash if Worker Was Acting on Employer’s Behalf

Many people on-the-job are also on the roads each day. If those workers are involved in an accident, there may be grounds to hold the employer accountable. The worker could seek workers’ compensation insurance and, if the worker was at-fault, the other driver could pursue a claim of vicarious liability against the employer. However, in order for either of those claims to stick, there has to be proof the worker was acting in the course and scope of employment. driver2

The legal theory under which an employer can be held liable is called respondeat superior, or “Let the Master Answer.” However, there are all sorts of legal exceptions, such as the “coming-and-going rule” (employees aren’t covered while commuting to-and-from work) and others.

In the recent case of Jorge v. Culinary Inst. of Am., the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District, Division Two, reversed an earlier jury trial finding awarding damages to a man injured when he was struck by a car driven by a chef instructor employed by defendant. The appellate court ruled the coming-and-going rule was applicable because as a chef instructor, defendant driver didn’t take his work home with him so the coming-and-going rule applied. 

According to court records, defendant driver drove his car to work to begin his shift at defendant culinary institute one morning in February 2010. He finished hi workday, left in his own vehicle and was heading toward his home. As he was driving, he struck two pedestrians – a 14-year-old boy and his then-girlfriend.

The young boy suffered serious injuries. A guardian ad litem (or legal representative for a minor) on the 14-year-old’s behalf filed a complaint for negligence against the driver and later amended the complaint to include the the culinary institute, citing the theory of respondeat superior.

Defendant company moved for summary judgment on grounds it couldn’t be liable under respondeat superior because its employee wasn’t acting in the scope of his employment at the time of the pedestrian accident. The trial court denied the motion, stating it was a triable issue of fact as to whether defendant was acting in the course and scope of employment for his duties at the time the crash occurred. The court noted several instances of case law in which it had been established that the fact an employee isn’t engaged in the ultimate object of employment at the time of the negligence doesn’t preclude attribution of liability to an employer. For example, a worker who is attending to both his own personal business as well as his work interests could still be acting in the scope of employment.

The court bifurcated the issues of liability and damages, with the negligence trial proceeding first. Jurors were instructed on the coming-and-going rule, and informed that when the vehicle is made available for the employer’s benefit, then the drive to-and-from can be considered in the scope of employment. It was noted that at the time of the crash, defendant driver had two dirty chef’s jackets and a set of knives in the car with him.

Jurors found both the driver and the company negligent. Driver settled for $30,000 before the second trial on damages. At the damages phase, jurors awarded plaintiff $885,000.

Defense asked for a judgment notwithstanding verdict, which was denied. Defendant appealed, and the appellate court reversed. The court noted that dirty jackets and knives notwithstanding, the driver did not take his work home with him. He was in his personal vehicle and was paid hourly, but this did not include his commute. He was never asked to have his vehicle available during the day and didn’t need to have a personal vehicle on campus. Thus, he was not acting in the course and scope of employment at the time of the crash.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Jorge v. Culinary Inst. of Am., Sept. 16, 2016, California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District, Division Two

More Blog Entries:

Anderson Jury Awards $4.6M to Woman Pricked by Needle in Store Parking Lot, Sept. 14, 2016, Charlotte Car Accident Attorney Blog

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