Most business owners like the idea of being self-employed and, therefore, the “master of their universe”. But the downside of that dominion is that sometimes the business and/or its owner(s) may be liable in damages for its employees’ conduct even when it doesn’t occur directly “on the job” or with the business owner’s knowledge and consent. That unintended consequence is a result of a legal theory called respondeat superior, or “let the master answer”.
The inspiration for writing on this topic comes from a recent news item in a local daily newspaper in which it was reported that an unlicensed driver of a vehicle belonging to a roofing company was cited for an accident. “Uh-oh,” the thought process goes, “it appears the law of unintended consequences has just kicked into gear once again.”
Although the Idaho legislature passed Section 6-1607, Idaho Code, in 2000 to create a statutory presumption that a business is not liable for the acts of its employees, there are four exceptions to that presumption. And, as a recent case decided by the Idaho Supreme Court in November of last year makes clear, those four exceptions have left the respondeat superior legal theory well in place.
In Nava v. Rivas-Del Toro and Cranney, et al, Beatriz Nava was struck and injured when a truck operated by Christian Rivas Del-Toro ran a stop sign. The truck was owned by the Cranney brothers, who were doing business as Cranney Farms. Del Toro was employed as a truck driver by Cranney Farms.
A year and a-half prior to the accident, while driving for Cranney Farms, Del Toro had received a ticket from the highway port authorities for failing to stop at a highway weigh station and driving a vehicle that exceeded the length limit for that section of the highway. Del Toro was warned at that time that he had three months to obtain a valid Idaho driver’s license. Del Toro gave the ticket to the Cranney Farms’ secretary and it was apparently paid. Neither he nor the farming operation did anything further to address his undocumented status.
On the day of the accident, Ryan Cranney asked Del Toro to drive to another farm and load some hay. Del Toro arranged through the Cranney Farms office to take the farm’s truck and trailer to a tire shop to have two tires repaired prior to getting the hay. Del Toro took an alternate route to the tire shop because the truck speedometer didn’t work and, based on his earlier ticket, Del Toro did not want to risk getting stopped. On the way to the tire shop, Del Toro failed to stop at an intersection and struck Nava’s vehicle, citing malfunctioning brakes as the cause.
Nava sued to recover for damages sustained by herself and her daughter and Cranney Farms raised Section 6-1607, Idaho Code, as a defense against liability for the accident. The Idaho Supreme Court held that the statute was not a proper defense against Nava’s claims because her claims against Cranney Farms were based on its direct negligence regarding the safety of the truck rather than on the employee-employer relationship of Del Toro and the farm. In doing so, however, the Court made clear that Section 6-1607 does not absolve a business of liability for an employee’s conduct if (1) the employee was wholly or partially engaged in the employer’s business at the time of the accident; or (2) it reasonably appeared that the employee was engaged in his or her employer’s business; or (3) the employee was on the employer’s property at the time of the accident; or (4) the employee was otherwise under the direction and control of the employer when the accident occurred. In essence, the Court held that the theory of respondeat superior is alive and well in Idaho.
Next week’s blog will take a look at just how far afield an employee may be at the time of an injury-causing event and still be considered to be acting within “the course and scope of employment” such that his or her employer may be held liable for any resulting damages.
Molly O’Leary represents business and telecommunications clients throughout Idaho, and is the Managing Principal of BizCounselor@Law, PLLC. In addition, she is a Past President of the Idaho State Bar and a current member of the Statewide Advisory Counsel for the Idaho Small Business Development Center. You may follow her on Twitter: @BizCounselor.