An Orlando jury awarded $10 million to the plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit that holds Domino’s Pizza liable for a car accident reportedly caused by a delivery driver employed by a franchise.
What’s particularly interesting about this case – and what could have ramifications for future cases – is that the jury chose to held the parent company liable. Most of the time, parent companies that have a franchisor-franchisee contract will prevail on vicarious liability issues by arguing they did not employ the employee and had no control over the worker’s hiring, training or supervision. Here, jurors combed over the franchise agreement and concluded the national pizza chain exercised its control over all major aspects of its contract with the franchisee, and thus could be vicariously liable for the negligence of the employee driver.
The crash killed a former Brevard County fire chief, who had been a firefighter in Central Florida for more than three decades. The impact of the crash rendered him quadriplegic and he died of his injuries little more than a year later.
Decedent’s wife, who was his fiancee at the time of the crash, testified during the four-day trial that the delivery driver tried to dangerously merge into their lane without ensuring the path was clear. Decedent, in an attempt to avoid a collision with the on-duty pizza delivery driver, swerved to avoid impact. He drove into the median and back across the roadway where it was struck and then overturned.
Questions arose at trial as to who was responsible for the collision and whether the Michigan-based pizza chain could be held liable.
Defense attorneys argued the decedent had been speeding and erred in swerving to avoid the delivery driver as opposed to braking. They also raised the suggestion that he had been distracted at the time of the car accident, and therefore was responsible.
However, an expert witness testifying for the plaintiff, decedent’s widow (the two married after the collision), opined the decedent didn’t have time to perceive the danger and react to it.
The defense attorney argued at one point that it didn’t actually matter who was at fault because the national chain could not be liable for the actions of its franchisee’s employee. The franchise is an independent business, rather than a part of the pizza chain.
What it came down to was a matter of control. Franchise documents showed the parent company did control a number of aspects when it came to workers, including providing a list of restrictions that dictated what delivery drivers could wear and what requirements they had to meet. Plaintiff’s attorneys argued that Domino’s description of the franchise as an independent contractor was nothing more than a label that allowed it to evade liability. (Similar conclusions have been reached by the New York Attorney General’s Office in a pending wage theft lawsuit involving the company. In that case, it’s been asserted the parent company “micromanaged” its franchises with weekly inspections and strict rules for everything from employee hiring standards to grooming.)
Jurors assigned 90 percent of fault for the crash to the delivery driver and found the parent company was liable based on the level of control it exercised over the franchise and its employee. Domino’s has vowed to appeal.
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Jury Slaps Domino’s in Death Suit, Cites It ‘Control’ of Franchise, April 2016, By Janet Sparks, Blue Maumau
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