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Court: Employee Admission of Vicarious Liability Preempts Negligence Claim

When the negligent actions of an employee acting in the course and scope of that employment result in injury to a third party, that individual has a few different avenues he or she may pursue for recovery of damages. 

The first involves seeking accountability of an employer per the doctrine of respondeat superior, which is Latin for, “let the master answer.” Under this rule, it isn’t necessary to show the employer was personally negligent in any way, only that it employed someone who acted in a negligent manner while on-the-job, thus resulting in plaintiff’s injuries. The second way involves asserting direct liability of the employer. That means plaintiff is arguing employer was in some way directly negligent for what happened. Some possible claims that fall under this category would be: Negligent hiring, negligent supervision, negligent vehicle maintenance, etc.

Courts in different states have reached different conclusions about whether injured parties should be able to pursue both types of claims if an employer concedes vicarious liability. For example, the Tennessee Supreme Court rejected the so-called “preemption rule” last year. The court held comparative fault could still apply for direct negligent claims when an employer had already admitted vicarious liability for a plaintiff’s injuries. 

However more recently, the Colorado Supreme Court decided it would accept the preemption rule, prohibiting a plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit from pursuing further claims of direct liability against an employer that has already conceded vicarious liability for the negligent actions of its employee.

According to court records, the case involved a pedestrian accident wherein two people were injured when a taxicab, driven by defendant company’s employee, struck them as they crossed the street in a crosswalk in Denver. Injuries suffered by both women were described as “significant.”

Both women filed lawsuits against the driver as well as the driver’s employer and owner of that vehicle. One settled out-of-court and is not a party to this matter. The other asserted the employer was negligent under the doctrine of respondeat superior, but she also asserted a claim of direct negligence, arguing negligent entrustment of a vehicle, negligent hiring, negligent supervision and negligent training of its employee.

In an answer to the original complaint, defendant company conceded:

  • Driver was an employee;
  • Driver was acting in the course and scope of employment at the time of the crash;
  • Driver was negligent in causing the crash.

Defense moved for a partial summary judgment, arguing that with this admission, the court should dismiss the other pending claims of direct negligence. Trial court granted the motion, citing a 1995 court ruling from the Missouri Supreme Court.

Plaintiff filed a motion seeking exemplary damages (referred to in Florida as punitive damages) against both defendants, but trial court rejected this request, finding plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence either defendant’s conduct was wanton or willful.

Plaintiff then appealed both of these rulings to the state supreme court, which affirmed both. Justices agreed with the trial court’s application of the 1995 court ruling, which resulted in a legal doctrine that is now referred to as the “McHaffie Rule” (after the case of McHaffie v. Bunch, which has been adopted by several other states).

A total of 19 jurisdictions, including Florida, have adopted the rule, as noted by the Michigan Law Review, although some of those are the result of federal court decisions that apply state law, and may not actually be binding on the state.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

In re Ferrer, Feb. 27, 2017, Colorado Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

$3 Million Product Liability Verdict Reversed for Failure to Vet Expert Witness, Feb. 26, 2017, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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