Hudgins v. Bemish – Vicarious Liability of Employer in Indiana Car Accident

Indiana car accident lawsuits in many cases involve more than just the drivers involved. If a driver was acting in the course and scope of employment or was operating an employer’s vehicle, the company could find itself facing claims of vicarious liability.

Corporate responsibility in such cases is based on the legal theory of respondeat superior, which is Latin for “Let the master answer.” What this means is that one can establish a claim of liability against an employer for the negligent acts of an employee carried out in the scope of employment – even if the employer did not engage in any negligent act. This is an important issue because it can directly affect how much compensation you may be able to collect for your injuries. The key determination that has to be made in order for respondeat superior to apply is whether the employee was acting in the scope of employment. Courts have generally broken this down into a four-part test:  whether the conduct is similar to that which the employee was hired to perform, whether the action occurred mostly within the authorized spacial and temporal limits of employment, whether the action furthered the employer’s business, and whether the conduct, although unauthorized, was foreseeable in view of the employee’s duties.

In the recent case of Hudgins v. Bemish, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that a trial court erred in granting summary judgment to a business defendant that argued it was not liable for the negligent acts of its employee. The appellate justices decided there were conflicting facts and inferences that could be drawn as to whether the driver was acting in the course and scope of his employment. Also, the defendant company hadn’t met its initial proof burden for summary judgment on the issues of negligent hiring and retention (which are direct liability claims).

According to court records, the defendant driver was an employee of the defendant heating and cooling company in 2011, working as an installer. As part of his job, he was supplied with a company truck. The written policy on company vehicles indicates vehicles are to be used solely for work-related purposes. Company vehicles may be driven home by the employee each day or can be dropped off and kept at the shop. The defendant driver drove his work truck home every day and stored it on his property. The company paid maintenance and gas for those vehicles.

Workers were required to sign a vehicle usage policy that indicated workers weren’t to use the company vehicles for any personal use.

In September 2011, the defendant driver was assigned to work on a project at a site in Valparaiso. He drove the truck, loaded up equipment from the shop, and picked up his foreman and drove to the job site. He and the foreman performed work there over the course of several days. One day, after working for several hours on site, the pair drove back to Indianapolis in the truck. The defendant dropped off the foreman at his house and stayed for a few minutes. He then drove the truck near 16th Street and Georgetown Road and was involved in a collision with a line of vehicles stopped at a a red traffic light.

The impact caused a chain reaction that included the plaintiff, who was on his motorcycle and was injured. At the time of the collision, the defendant driver had several ladders with the defendant company’s logo on it. One of those fell onto the road at the site of the car accident.

The defendant driver then fled the scene in the truck, drove another few blocks, and then was involved in a second crash, when he struck another vehicle at a traffic light. When officers caught up to the defendant driver at the second crash site, they noted he “appeared dazed” and had trouble keeping his eyes open. He reportedly conceded that he had smoked “spice,” a synthetic drug, while on the side of the road.

Thereafter, the defendant company fired the defendant driver.

The motorcyclist and his wife filed claims against the driver and the company, alleging the driver was negligent in causing his injuries, and the employer was liable based on the theory of respondeat superior, as well as for negligent hiring and negligent retention.

The company moved for summary judgment on the claims against it. It alleged the worker was not acting in the scope of his employment because he was driving the company vehicle on his commute home after his shift, and he was not performing any activity related to his employment. As to the negligent hiring and retention claims, the company argued that while employers have a duty to use reasonable care to control employees acting outside the scope of employment in certain situations, it had no actual or constructive knowledge that any information that might show a propensity of the worker to commit these tortious acts would lead to a lawsuit. The defendant also further argued that it had no duty to the plaintiffs because they weren’t patrons of the company.

The appellate court, in reviewing the lower court’s grant of this summary judgment request, found there remained genuine issues of material fact as to whether the driver was acting in the course and scope of employment. Specifically, the company’s arguments seemed to conflict with the policies of its own handbook. There was also evidence that the company did owe a duty of care to the plaintiffs. The case was remanded for trial.

Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call toll-free at 877-446-5294.

Additional Resources:

Hudgins v. BemishDec. 9, 2016, Indiana Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:

Indiana Supreme Court Weighs Collateral Source Statute and Government Payers, Dec. 1, 2016, Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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