EMPLOYERS VICARIOUS LIABILITY FOR EMPLOYEES USE OF BUSINESS VEHICLE
The phrase Respondeat Superior is a Latin term for Let The Master Answer. In essence, the concept (in modern terms referred to as the Law Of Agency) is that when one person takes action on behalf of another, both the actor and the person on whose behalf action is taken may be liable for the harm caused by the negligence of the actor. The agent may be the only person who acted negligently, but is considered to be standing in the shoes of the person commissioning the act of the agent. As a result, the person commissioning the agent is vicariously liable for actions taken on their behalf by the agent.
In fact, in the case of the employer/employee relationship, many employers are business entities (such as corporations or limited liability companies) which can not act on their own and can only act through employees.
Under the doctrines of Respondeat Superior or Master/Servant or Agency, an employer (the master) may be responsible for the acts of an employee (the servant) under certain circumstances. Dibrill v. Normandie Associates, Inc., 383 SW3d 77 (Mo. App. ED 2012).
The result is that an employer is liable for the misconduct of an employee where that employee is acting within the course and scope of his or her employment. State ex rel. Green v. Neill, 127 S.W.3d 677 (Mo. banc 2004).
An act is considered to be within the course and scope of employment if:
- (1) even though not specifically authorized, it is done to further the business or interests of the employer under his general authority and direction and
- (2) it naturally arises from the performance of the employer’s work.
Daugherty v. Allee’s Sports Bar & Grill, 260 S.W.3d 869 (Mo.App. W.D.2008); see also Cluck v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 367 S.W.3d 25 (Mo. banc 2012).
The Court in P.S. v. Psychiatric Coverage Ltd., 887 S.W.2d 622, 624 (Mo.App. E.D.1994) explained:
- If the act is fairly and naturally incident to the employer’s business, although mistakenly or ill-advisedly done, and did not arise wholly from some external, independent or personal motive, it is done while engaged in the employer’s business.
In the case of an employee’s use of an employer’s motor vehicle, there is a long-standing presumption that the employee was acting within the scope of his employment whenever the vehicle is owned by the employer and driven by the employee. McCoy v. Hershey Chocolate Co., 655 S.W.2d 128 (Mo.App. E.D.1983) (citing Stone v. Reed, 247 S.W.2d 325, 330 (Mo.App.1952)).
If the trip made by an employee in an employer’s vehicle was at least in part undertaken for the business interests of the employer, a deviation to combine a personal task with a business task might not defeat the vicarious liability of the employer. Even if the trip served multiple purposes, so long as one purpose was within the scope of the business interests of the employer and the personal task did not represent a major deviation from the business interests, then the agency of the employee is extended to the entire trip.
For example, in Rainwater v. Wallace, et al., 174 S.W.2d 835 (Mo. 1943), the court addressed the use of an employer’s vehicle by an employee for the dual purpose of both the employer’s business and personal business in a single trip. In Rainwater, Wallace was employed as a foreman in a tree surgery business operating under the name Midwest Tree Experts. Wallace was provided with a vehicle to take to and from work, to haul tools and other necessary gear, and the truck was garaged at Wallace’s home.
On the day of the collision, Wallace and his wife took the work truck to a realty company to obtain a list of houses they were considering purchasing. At the same time, Wallace planned to inspect some trees at the realtor’s home for the purpose of bidding the tree trimming/removal job.
The court determined that Wallace’s trip at the time of the collision served a dual purpose, one of which was in direct connection with the business and the other was not. The court held that:
- “It is a well-established rule of this state that a servant does not step without the scope of employment as a matter of law by joining some private business of his own with that of his master’s, except where he makes a marked deviation from his master’s business”.
In Rainwater, the court noted that Wallace was on a trip of dual purpose, one for his employer and the other with his wife on personal matters, one being no more important than the other. The court found that Wallace had not stepped outside the scope of his employment simply because he intended to accomplish a mission of his own as well as the mission of his employer.
The master and servant or employer and employee, do not necessarily occupy the same position in the case. In the case of an employee’s use of an employer’s motor vehicle, while both may be equally liable, the insurance coverage will provide primary coverage to the employer and omnibus coverage for the employee driving the vehicle.
In addition, the employee need not necessarily be joined as a party defendant for the employer to be liable for the acts of the employee. The employee is not an indispensable party in tort actions where the employer’s liability is based on Respondeat Superior or Master/Servant or Agency principles.
The plaintiff may sue the employer (under respondeat superior), or the employee (for negligent acts), or both. If the Plaintiff releases the employee for negligent acts, that does not release the employer from liability. Collins v. Westlake Hardware Co. of Macon, 783 S.W.2d 172, 173 (Mo. App. W.D. 1990).
Missouri Approved Jury Instruction 18.01 provides an additional modification to the verdict directing instructions to address contested agency issues. No modification is necessary if agency is admitted because agency will not be submitted to the jury as an issue.
When employers or employees questions about vicarious liability or agency issues, they should seek advice from a skilled Rolla personal injury attorney who can examine the individual facts in question in light of the case law surrounding permissive use of a vehicle by an employee or agent.
By: Joseph W. Rigler
DID YOU KNOW ? is presented by Williams, Robinson, Rigler & Buschjost, PC as a public information service only. None of the information contained herein is intended to be taken as legal advice. Each matter depends on unique facts which attorneys must consider in forming an opinion, and may depend on laws unique to a particular jurisdiction. No two cases are the same. If you want to know more about this subject, contact Williams, Robinson, Rigler & Buschjost, PC, or the attorney of your choice, and seek a formal opinion about your particular case.
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