Vicarious Liability in Washington Automobile Accidents

car accident

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An employer may be held vicariously liable for the negligence of its employees in a Washington automobile accident case when the employees are acting within the scope of their employment.  An employee is acting within the scope of employment when engaged in the performance of duties required or directed by the employer or engaged in the furtherance of the employer’s interest.  An employee is not acting within the scope of employment when engaged in conduct involving a personal objective that is not related to the employer’s business.  The issue of vicarious liability was recently before a Washington appeals court.

The defendant driver failed to stop in time to avoid rear-ending the plaintiff’s stopped vehicle.  The defendant driver works as a regional manager for the defendant employer.  He works from his home and frequently travels for his job.  The defendant employer provides him with a monthly vehicle allowance for the cost of his vehicle and insurance.  The defendant employer also reimburses 80% of his vehicle maintenance and operation expenses.  The defendant driver did not tell his employer about the accident.

The plaintiffs sued the defendant driver and he admitted liability for the accident.  The defendant employer was subsequently added to the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs ultimately added a vicarious liability claim against it. The defendant driver testified in his deposition that he was driving home after working at the time of the accident.

The defendant employer moved for summary judgment of the claims against it.  The defendant driver filed a declaration that stated he was driving home from a sales meeting.  He stated his purpose in driving was to fulfill his employment duties.  He further stated that the employer reimbursed him for his lunch and 80% of the gas used that day.  The trial court denied the defendant employer’s motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment as to the issue of the employer’s vicarious liability.  The plaintiffs attached to their motion another declaration in which the defendant driver indicated he was returning to his home office and had not intended to indicate he had finished work for the day at the time of the accident.

The defendant employer argued the evidence created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendant driver was within the scope of his employment when the accident occurred.  The trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion.  The case went to trial to determine damages, and the jury found the plaintiffs were owed $900,000.  The defendant employer appealed, and the plaintiffs and defendant driver filed cross appeals.

The defendant employer argued the trial court erred in granting the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment as to vicarious liability.  The employer argued the defendant driver had made contradictory statements creating a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he was acting in the scope of employment.  The defendant driver stated in his deposition that he did not remember where he was coming from, but that he was going home.  He was asked if he was going home because he was off work and if he had worked that day, and he answered “Yes.”  In a subsequent declaration, he stated he was driving home from a sales meeting to continue working in his home office.

The appeals court noted that the locations the driver was driving to and from were “critical” in determining whether he was acting within the scope of his employment.  The appeals court found the trial court had erred in granting the summary judgment when there was a genuine issue of material fact arising from the defendant driver’s contradictory statements.

The defendant employer also argued the trial court erred in granting the partial summary judgment because there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether the driver was acting within the scope of his employment.

For vicarious liability to apply, the employee must be acting within the scope of his employment.  Generally, travelling to and from work is not acting within the scope of employment. However, when the employee is in an employer-furnished vehicle as an incident to employment pursuant to custom or a contractual obligation, the employee may be acting within the scope of employment.  An employer does not just furnish a vehicle when it allows the employee to use its vehicle, but may also furnish a vehicle by hiring a vehicle, reimbursing the employee for use of the employee’s vehicle, or reimbursing the employee for other transportation.

In this case, however, the driver’s contradictory statements made it unclear whether he was coming from work and whether he was going back to work at his home.  The appeals court found there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he was acting in the scope of his employment so the trial court erred in granting the partial summary judgment.

The appeals court also addressed several issues related to damages and evidence, but remanded the case for trial on the sole issue of whether the defendant driver was acting within the scope of his employment when the accident occurred.

Vicarious liability is important because it holds employers accountable.  It also provides an additional avenue of recovery for injury victims. If you have been injured by someone else’s negligence, the skilled Washington personal injury attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC, can help you identify all potential sources of recovery to get the compensation you deserve.  Call us at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case.

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