Respondeat Superior: Are Employers Responsible for Their Employees’ Commutes?

As a general rule, 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. While there is no controlling definition of scope of employment, generally, if the employee’s wrongful conduct is in any way incidental to his or her employment, related to his or her work duties, or provides a benefit to his or her employer, the employer may be found liable to third parties under this doctrine of respondeat superior. Du Pree v. Babcock, 112 S.E.2d 415 (Ga. Ct. App. 1959).

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. For instance, in Hunter v. Modern Cont’l Constr. Co., 652 S.E.2d 583 (Ga. Ct. App. 2007), the Georgia Court of Appeals denied the defendant employer’s summary judgment motion on respondeat superior liability where its off-duty employee caused an accident while driving to work in the morning, reasoning that while the employee was not specifically engaged in a company errand, the employee may have caused the accident while using his mobile phone in furtherance of company business.

While not directly applicable to Georgia law, a pair of recent California decisions may provide insight into national legal trends on employee liability for employee commutes. In October 2013, the California Court of Appeals (Second District) held in Moradi v. Marsh USA Inc., 219 Cal. App. 4th 886 (2013) that a company was vicariously liable for its employee’s accident that occurred during the employee’s commute home. The employee, a saleswoman, was required her to use her personal vehicle for business purposes on a daily basis. One day, on her way home from the office, the employee decided to make a side trip to attend a yoga class, but then also had a sudden frozen yogurt craving and stopped at a yogurt shop on her way to yoga. As she was pulling into the parking lot, she collided with a motorcyclist and injured him.

The California Court of Appeals held that that the employer could be held liable for employees’ accidents during their commutes, because it regularly required employees to use their cars for work purposes. The Court then held that the employee’s frozen yogurt/yoga class detour was a foreseeable and minor deviation from her drive home, which did “not change the incidental benefit to the employer of having the employee use her personal vehicle to travel to and from the office and other destinations.” Accordingly, the Court of Appeal found that the employer could be vicariously liable for the accident.

Several days later, in Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. v. Department of Transportation, 220 Cal. App. 4th 87 (2013) another Court of Appeals (Fifth District) reached the opposite conclusion. In that case, the employee was assigned a company-owned pickup truck. Halliburton allowed the employee to use the truck to commute to and from work and to run personal errands during his commute route. One morning, after finishing a shift, the employee drove approximately 100 miles to Bakersfield to meet his family, and was involved in an accident while returning from Bakersfield to work an evening shift.

The Halliburton court distinguished Moradi, holding that the Moradi employee’s side trip to the yogurt shop was a “minimal deviation from the employee’s commute home” while the Halliburton employee’s 100-mile excursion to meet his family “was entirely personal . . . and such a complete and material departure from his employment duties that that it could not reasonably be considered to be an activity in pursuit of the employer’s business”.

Employers, even those in states outside of California, should be mindful of the lessons of Moradi and Halliburton relating to potential liability occasioned by employees during their commutes. Depending on the circumstances, the scope of respondeat superior liability may extend well beyond typical work hours and work activities.

Nick Hinson