Appeals Court Affirms Denial of Summary Judgment in Various Liability Wrongful Death Suit

In a recent decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals looked at common questions concerning when an employer may be held liable for the acts of an employee. The facts underlying this decision, CGL Facility Management, LLC v. Wiley, are incredibly unfortunate. While driving to Augusta in a pickup truck provided by his employer, the employee at issue in the litigation crossed the center line on a stretch of highway and collided head-on with a vehicle being driven by the decedent. Shortly after the accident, the employee underwent a blood test that came back positive for the presence of both amphetamine and methamphetamine. The decedent’s husband, acting as a personal representative for her estate, brought a wrongful death suit against both the driver and his employer, CGL Facility Management.
At the trial level, the plaintiffs predicated the employer’s responsibility in this case on several differing theories of vicarious liability, including respondeat superior and negligent hiring, retention, training, entrustment, and maintenance. Following discovery, CGL moved for summary judgment, arguing that it could not be held liable based on the plaintiff’s proffered theories of liability. Without explanation, the trial court denied the motion for summary judgment but granted CGL’s application for immediate review by the appellate court on the issue. The appeals court reversed the trial court determination on the claims of respondeat superior and negligent hiring, retention, training, and maintenance, but it agreed with the trial court that the employer could be liable under a negligent entrustment theory of liability.
Undoubtedly, Georgia law does not make an employer liable for any and all injuries caused by the acts of employees. Instead, an injured party must demonstrate that an employee’s conduct falls within some applicable theory of vicarious liability that would make the employer liable for the harmed caused. The most common form of employer vicarious liability is known as respondeat superior, which essentially makes an employer liable for injuries that occur within the employee’s scope of employment. In Georgia, when an employee is involved in a collision while operating a vehicle owned by an employer, a presumption is created that the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment. However, this is a rebuttable presumption, and the appeals court concluded that CGL had rebutted the presumption, since the evidence showed that the employee was driving to work at the time of the crash and not actively engaged in any business for the employer. In fact, the employee held a supervisory position and would rarely use the vehicle while on the job. Since the plaintiff did not proffer additional direct or circumstantial evidence demonstrating that the employee was acting within the scope of his employment, summary judgment in favor of CGL was appropriate.

With respect to the negligence-based theories of liability, the Court of Appeals first concluded that a claim of negligent hiring or retention related to an employee’s motor vehicle accident required that the employee be acting within the scope of his employment. Since, as concluded above, the employee was not acting in the scope of his employment, it followed that the employer could not be liable for negligent hiring or retention. Next, the court concluded that the plaintiff had proffered no sufficient evidence of negligence related to either training of the employee or maintaining the vehicle. Therefore, summary judgment was appropriate with respect to the negligent training and maintenance claims. However, with respect to negligent entrustment, the court reached a different conclusion. The employee’s personnel file was surprisingly sparse given that it was common practice at CGL, based on the testimony of a human resources employee, to conduct background investigations and drug tests on all prospective employees. However, the plaintiff nonetheless proffered evidence that the employee’s driver’s license had been suspended in 1989 following his third DUI conviction. In addition, the employee testified in his deposition that CGL conducted a background check and drug test on him at the moment of employment. Accordingly, there was a question of material fact related to whether CGL, despite the curious absence of personnel records on the matter, had constructive knowledge of the employee’s pattern of impaired driving such that it could be found liable for negligent entrustment of the vehicle.
Since many employees are financially incapable of providing full financial recovery to an injured victim, obtaining complete compensation for injuries often depends on demonstrating some form of employer liability. Given that the law in this area narrowly circumscribes employers’ responsibility, the assistance of counsel is imperative for anyone whose recovery depends on successfully asserting employer liability. If an employee or other driver has injured you in an Atlanta motor vehicle accident, the attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have the experience your case demands and are prepared to answer questions you may have. Feel free to contact us if you would like a free case consultation.

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