Employer Liable for Employee Accident on Drive to Work

The law continues to evolve in answering the question of when an employer is held liable for an employee’s actions. The legal doctrine of “respondeat superior” imposes liability on employers for actions of their employees.

The purpose of the doctrine is three fold:

(1) to encourage accident prevention;

(2) to allow an innocent person to be more likely to collect damages; and

(3) to encourage employers to protect against risk by obtaining insurance and spreading those costs over the entire business.

Last month, the California court took another look at a situation in which an employee collided with a motorcycle while driving from his home to the employer’s yard. While the trial court initially agreed with the employer that it was not liable for the accident because the incident took place before the employee arrived to work, the court is now taking a second look at this situation.

Upon second look, the court found that the employer may be held liable for an accident on the employee’s drive from his home to the employer’s yard because it provided a benefit to the employer – after the employee arrived at the yard, he proceeded to pick up a company vehicle and traveled to a work site with other workers and materials. But here’s the catch: the employee was not paid for any of this activity. The employee’s pay did not begin until he arrived at the work site. The court reasoned that because the employer is benefiting from the employee’s commute from his home to the yard to the work site and not compensating the employee for this time, the policy of respondeat superior may be invoked to serve the three purposes outlined above. Namely, the employer is benefiting from the employees efforts but not having to compensate him so the employer should be liable for accidents during this time.

Although the case is yet to be firmly decided, the court did note that if the employer had paid the employee from the time he arrived at the yard then it would not be reasonable to hold the company liable for any of the employee’s accidents prior to arriving at the yard, as it would not be a foreseeable cost of the company’s business. This serves as an incentive for employers to pay their employees for commutes such as drive time between work sites in order to avoid the application of liability under respondeat superior.

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