Court of Appeals Examines Borrowed-Servant Rule in Negligence Suit Against Georgia Municipality

Although employers are not liable for every injury caused by an employee, the doctrine of respondeat superior does make an employer liable for certain injuries caused by an employee acting within the scope of his or her employment. As to be expected, however, there are certain exceptions to application of respondeat superior doctrine that will shield an employer from liability even when the employee is negligent and acting within the scope of employment. Among these various exceptions is the borrowed-servant rule, which insulates an employer from liability when the employer lends the employee to another, and the employee commits a negligent act while engaged in work for the other party. In a recent decision, Garden City v. Herrera , the Georgia Court of Appeals examined the applicability of the borrowed-servant rule to a motor vehicle accident involving a police officer.
The motor vehicle collision at issue in this case occurred in July 2010, when a car being driven by a police officer employed by the Garden City Police Department collided with a car being driven by another. The officer had been employed with the city since 2007 and since the nascent period of his employment was part of a multi-jurisdictional narcotics task force. The task force was created in 1994, when Chatham County entered into agreements with various municipal law enforcement agencies. Per these agreements, local law enforcement agencies assigned officers to a 27-month tour with the countywide Counter Narcotics Team, which was run by a commanding officer employed by the county. At the time of the accident, the officer was driving from the location of one task force operation to another, under the orders of a supervising task force officer. Following the accident, a lawsuit was brought on behalf of the seriously injured driver against Garden City, Chatham County, and several other defendants. Following the close of discovery, Garden City moved for summary judgment, arguing that it could not be held liable because the accident occurred when the employee was a borrowed-servant of the county. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment, finding that there was an issue of material fact concerning whether the county retained exclusive authority to fire the officer. If the county did not retain such authority, the borrowed-servant doctrine would not apply.

Despite the trial court’s belief that an issue of material fact existed, the Court of Appeals unanimously reversed. For the borrowed servant rule to apply, an employer must show that “(1) the [borrower] had complete control and direction of the [employee] for the occasion; (2) the [employer] had no such control [;] and (3) the [borrower] had the exclusive right to discharge the [employee].” Six Flags Over Ga., Inc. v. Hill, 247 Ga. 375, 377 (1) (1981). The trial court determined that a material issue of fact existed with respect to the third prong, since the evidence showed that the commanding officer of the task force could not terminate the officer’s employment, and the city had authority to not only terminate the officer but also remove him from assignment with the Narcotics Task Force. However, the Court of Appeals noted that in applying the borrowed-servant rule, the test relates to “only to the specific task for which the servants are loaned.” Fulghum Indus., Inc. v. Pollard Lumber Co., 106 Ga. App. 49, 52 (2) (a) (1962). Thus, the right to discharge prong means the right to discharge the employee from the task for which he was loaned. Although the city retained authority to remove the officer from assignment with the task force generally, it was the county that had the exclusive right to discharge the officer from the specific task he was performing at the moment of the alleged negligence. Accordingly, there was no issue of material fact concerning applicability of the borrowed-servant exception, which applied as a matter of law and insulated the city from liability. Although one could argue that having the power to completely discharge assignment to the task force would, by effect, give one power to discharge the employee from the specific tasks being performed during the assignment to the task force, such reasoning is likely too expansive because a principal employer usually has some authority to terminate the borrowing relationship.
While the plaintiff has lost her claims against the city, she will likely be able to maintain her cause of action against Chatham County through trial, since the county was exercising control of the officer at the time of the allegedly negligent act. Indeed, it is often important to bring claims against all possibly negligent actors at the time one brings suit, since it may be difficult to unravel responsibility prior to the benefit of full discovery on the issue. Determining what parties may be liable and ultimately proving one’s claims can be a protracted and challenging process, and someone considering taking legal action to remedy injuries arising from a possible case of negligence should consult with experienced legal counsel. The Atlanta motor vehicle accident attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have experience with claims against government entities and can provide useful guidance to someone in this position. If you’ve been injured as a result of the possible negligence of another and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us for a complimentary case consultation.

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