The recent case of Zaldivar v. Prickett, before the Georgia Supreme Court, dealt with issues of vicarious liability and negligent entrustment as they relate to car accident litigation.
Vicarious liability is a kind of strict, secondary liability that originates from the doctrine of respondeat superior. That isthe responsibility of a superior for the tortious acts of a subordinate. A person or business can be vicariously liable even if they haven’t actually engaged directly in any negligent behavior.
Negligent entrustment, meanwhile, is a direct form of liability that asserts one party negligently provided another with a dangerous instrumentality, and the person entrusted with that dangerous instrumentality caused injury to a third party with that instrumentality.
Most commonly, we see these issues arise in car accidents that involve a person who is driving a vehicle for business purposes. So for example, a truck driver hauling oranges crashes into a passenger car on a Florida highway and injures the car occupants. Those individuals could sue the driver’s employer for vicarious liability. If plaintiff could show grounds for negligent entrustment also, that could be a separate cause of action within the same lawsuit.
The Zaldivar case was a bit different because it involved the defendant asserting negligent entrustment and vicarious liability by the plaintiff’s employer in a car accident lawsuit. Defendant’s goal was to reduce her own apportionment of fault by placing at least some of the blame on plaintiff’s employer.
According to court records, there is dispute about how the collision in question occurred. Plaintiff alleges he was lawfully turning left in an intersection, and in so doing, defendant drove into that intersection against the traffic signal and hit him. However, defendant asserts she entered the intersection lawfully, and plaintiff failed to yield the right of way when he turned into her path.
Plaintiff sued defendant in order to recover damages for his injuries.
At the time of the crash, plaintiff was driving a truck his employer provided to him as part of his employment. (As such, he likely could explore workers’ compensation as well.)
Defendant countered plaintiff’s employer was at least partially responsible for plaintiff’s injuries, based on principles of vicarious liability and negligent entrustment. The company was not a party to the lawsuit. (This meant if any apportionment of fault was attributed to the company, plaintiff could not collect on it. If he collected workers’ compensation, he would not have been able to do so anyway, per the exclusive remedy provisions of workers’ compensation law that bar litigation by a worker against an employer.)
Plaintiff responded the state’s “apportionment statute,” which grants the ability to apportion fault to separate entities based on their role in causing the accident/injuries, was not applicable here because his employer hadn’t committed a tort resulting in proximate injury to plaintiff. He also argued negligent entrustment couldn’t be the proximate cause of injury to the person to whom the instrumentality was entrusted.
Defendant shot back that the statute does allow apportionment of fault to non-parties absent liability to plaintiff in a tort action.
Trial court agreed with plaintiff’s interpretation of the law, as did the appellate court. However, the state supreme court reversed. The court ruled “fault” can be applied to nonparty tortfeasors who are not necessarily liable for their actions. That is, the company may not necessarily be made to pay, but they could still be found negligent, and thus the overall damage award – if granted – would be reduced by that percentage.
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Zaldivar v. Prickett, July 6, 2015, Georgia Supreme Court
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