Work-related Car Accidents: Who Is Responsible?

Posted on by Defensive Driving | in Defensive Driving Tips

If your employee has an accident while driving his or her own car to work, are you as the employer responsible? What about an employee who uses a personal car to take a prospective client to dinner and hits a pedestrian? What if a different employee has an accident while using a company car on personal business?

Whether you are responsible for a corporate fleet or simply have one or two employees who use their cars to run work-related errands, these are questions you should be able to answer. However, the answers can be a bit more complicated than you might think.

In general, employers have vicarious responsibility for the actions of their employees. Under the principle “respondeat superior”, an employer is legally responsible for any actions undertaken employees during the course of employment. Determining what exactly the “course of employment” is can be a bit tricky.

Basically, if an action is undertaken to accommodate the needs of an employer and/or benefits the employer, then it is considered to be in the “course of employment.” For example, say an employer asks his employee to fetch work-related materials on his or her way home. The employer would then be liable for any accidents or damage incurred by the employee while driving home from work. This holds true whether or not the employee is driving a company car or a personal car and even if the driver only uses the vehicle for work-related purposes sporadically.

For example, in a recent case in California, Lobo v. Tamco (2010), the court ruled that an employer was responsible for the actions of an employee while travelling to and from work, as the employer required that the employee bring his car to work in order to use it for company errands. While the employee had only been required to use his car for work-related errands on 12 occasions during 16 years of employment, the employer was nonetheless held responsible.
Courts do often distinguish between “detours” and “frolics.” If an employee goes on a detour while carrying out his or her duties, then the employer will still be responsible. For example, if an employee stops for food while on the way to a sales call and an accident occurs at the drive-through, the employer will likely be held responsible. However, should an employee use a personal OR company vehicle for reasons of personal pleasure, this is defined as a “frolic”, and the employer is not held responsible. For example, if an employee has an accident with a company car while taking his family out to dinner, the employer won’t be held responsible. However, this may not necessarily be true. In some states, owner liability laws will ensure that the employer is responsible for any accidents that involve company cars, even if they occur while personal tasks are being carried out.

Employers can also be held responsible for negligent hiring. Employers need to conduct the necessary background checks to ensure that employees are suitable for the tasks that will be required of them. For example, an employer who hired a convicted child molester to drive an ice cream truck would be guilty of negligent hiring. This holds true for positions which require driving. If you are hiring an employee who will be required to carry out ANY kind of work-related driving, you, as an employer, will be responsible for checking that the prospective employee has a clear driving record, any necessary licensing, and the knowledge and skills necessary to drive safely. Employers can also be found guilty of negligent retention. If a driver accumulates repeated fines and offenses, his or her employer must take steps to prevent further problems, including suspension, firing, or the completion of a defensive driving course.
One area of employer liability that has recently come under intense scrutiny is the rise in distracted driving accidents. Employers can be held liable for cell-phone related accidents, particularly if the employer has created a work environment in which employees are pressured to be in constant communication, even while driving. If an employer issues cellphones to employees, the employer can also be held liable for phone related accidents.

As an employer, you can take several steps to minimize your liability for cell-phone related accidents, including:

  • Creating a clear written policy on cell phone usage and safe driving that is signed by all employees. For tips on how to do this, see my previous entry on how to create a safe driving policy.
  • Provide printed information on state laws regarding driving and cell-phone usage.
  • Have all employees sign an indemnity statement that absolves the employer of responsibility should they violate the company’s cell-phone usage policy.

Communication of expectations and regular safe driving education can also help to reduce the number of accidents and promote safe driving habits within the work place. Enrolling your workforce in a defensive driving course is a great way to educate your employees and prevent accidents. Find out more at www.businessdefensivedriving.com.

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