Every day people travel to and from their place of work by car and some people even travel throughout the day for their jobs. The question posed by this article is; When Does Employer Liability Arise for a car accident negligently caused by their employee? The answer to this question is controlled by the doctrine of Respondeat Superior, which is a latin phrase for “let the master answer”. The general rule in Indiana is, “vicarious liability will be imposed upon an employer under the doctrine of respondeat superior where the employee has inflicted harm while acting within the scope of employment.”1 Indiana Law answers questions involving Respondeat Superior using a two-prong test:2
1) Does a master-servant (employer/employee) relationship exist?
2) If so, was the servant (employee) acting within the scope of employment?
Indiana still uses the Hale Factors in determining whether a master-servant (employer/employee) relationship exists.3 Once it has been established that an employee-employer relationship exists the issue in determining whether an employer is liable an accident caused by its employee is in determining whether the employee was “within the scope of employment”. For this article it will be assumed that an employee-employer relationship exists and this article will focus on whether or not the employee is “in the scope of employment”.
In general, under Indiana law to be within the scope of employment, “the injurious act must be incidental to the conduct authorized [by the employer] or it must, to an appreciable extent, further the employer’s business.4 “This does not mean an employee’s sole motivation for his/her actions must be to serve the employer, but his or her actions must be “motivated to any appreciable extent by the purpose to serve the [employer].”5
Let’s start with a situation where the sole motivation for an employee’s actions are to serve their employer. Obviously a truck driver who is transporting goods for his/her employer is “in the scope of employment” because driving from one place to another is the entire scope of a truck driver’s employment. So if one of these trucks is involved in an accident, the employer would be liable for the damages caused. Having said that, truck drivers operating their semi-trailers are not always considered to be “in the scope of employment.” The reasoning for this is the “going-and-coming” rule which will be discussed later.
What are situations in which an employee who is driving might be “motivated to any appreciable extent by the purpose to serve the [employer]”? The case which best illustrates this type of situation is Gibbs.6 In this case a flooring salesman for Sears who worked in the store, but also made house calls on his “days off” was involved in a car accident. At the time of the accident he had was traveling from an appointment he had made with a customer he met in the store to his home to enjoylunch. The court said because the employee was going to leave after he ate his lunch to meet with other prospective customers that his driving home for his lunch break was still “motivated to an appreciable extent by the purpose to serve the employer” and that his driving “benefitted the employer.” This is one situation in which an employee whose sole responsibility is not driving, may still be said to be “in the scope of employment” while driving.
The “going-and-coming” rule limits the situations in which an employee can be said to be “in the scope of employment” while driving. Specifically this rule says that an employee is not usually “in the scope of employment” when driving to and from work.7
This rule has been interpreted to mean that a truck driver who is on his/her way to pick up the first load they will be transporting that day or has dropped the last load of the day cannot be considered to be “in the scope of employment” and therefore the employer would not be liable for harm they may cause in going to or coming from work.
This rule also means that a normal employee who is on their way to or from work is not “in the scope of employment”. As you can see from the Gibbs case that was discussed earlier, there are exceptions to the going and coming rule. The “going-and-coming” rule also has other exceptions such as:
1) Employees running errands for employer while on the way to or from work.8
2) Employees who are on-call 24/7 and are involved in an accident while driving a company provided vehicle.9
To sum everything up, there are some situations in which an employer can be held liable for an auto accident caused by its employee. The “obvious situations” are when the employees’ sole purpose involves driving, such as a bus or truck driver. The “not-so-obvious” situations are when the employee’s actions are benefitting the employer, but the actions are not solely motivated by the employer, such as the employee dropping something off for the employer on the employee’s way home from work. It is also important to recognize that all of these situations are limited by the “going-and-coming” rule which means an employer is not liable for an employee’s car accident on the way to or from work, unless the employee is doing something else in order to be “in the scope of employment”. To determine whether the employer of someone whose car hit you is liable for the damages caused by their employee it is important to seek the advice of an experience attorney.
4 Barnett at 283
6 Gibbs, 283 N.E.2d 592