Case Law Update: Company Vehicles and Employer Liability

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior in Georgia, an employer is liable for injuries to another proximately resulting from the acts of an employee committed within the scope of his or her employment. O.C.G.A. § 51-2-2. Typically speaking, Georgia law does not consider an employee’s commute within the scope of employment for the purposes of respondeat superior liability without additional evidence to bring that activity within the scope of employment. An employee is deemed to be acting for his own purposes while commuting unless he undertakes a special mission at the employer’s direction. Betsill v. Scale Systems, Inc., 269 Ga. App. 393 (2004). For instance, in Hunter v. Modern Cont’l Constr. Co., 652 S.E.2d 583 (Ga. App. 2007), the Georgia Court of Appeals found sufficient evidence to deny the employer’s summary judgment motion on respondeat superior liability where an off-duty employee caused an accident while taking a work call during his morning commute.

A pair of new Georgia Court of Appeals cases underline that while employers who provide company vehicles may not be liable under respondeat superior for their employees’ commutes, they can be held responsible for supplying those vehicles under the theory of negligent entrustment. An employer who provides a company vehicle to an employee who causes an accident through incompetency or recklessness may be held responsible for negligently providing that vehicle with actual knowledge that the driver is incompetent or habitually reckless. Williams v. Ngo, 289 Ga. App. 44 (2007). In Dougherty Equip. Co. v. Roper, 327 Ga.App. 434, 757 S.E.2d 885 (2014) the Court affirmed dismissal of Dougherty’s motion for summary judgment on negligent entrustment, noting that Dougherty had actual knowledge that its employee had two DUIs prior to assigning him a company vehicle. Similarly, CGL Facility Mgmt. v. Wiley, 760 S.E.2d 251 (Ga. App. 2014) concerns an auto collision negligently caused by a CGL Facility Mgmt. employee who had three prior DUI convictions. While the CGL’s personnel files showed no record of the DUIs, CGL’s HR director testified that company policy was to run MVRs, drug tests and criminal background checks on new hires. Because these searches would have provided CGL with actual knowledge of the subject employee’s habitually reckless behavior, the Court found there was a question of fact as to CGL’s negligent entrustment of the company vehicle.

As always, it is important that Georgia employers are aware of potential sources of liability so that they can proactively limit potential claims. Recent Georgia case law shows that employers should be very cautious about providing company vehicles to employees with prior DUI convictions, as they may be held liable for accidents even if they do not occur in the course and scope of the employer’s business.

Nick Hinson