Texas Court Affirms Summary Judgment in Favor of At-Fault Motorist’s Employer

The primary reasoning behind the civil tort of negligence is that those who fail to act in a reasonably prudent manner should be held accountable to those hurt by their actions (or inactions).

Just as direct negligence can be used to hold a careless individual liable in court, vicarious liability (sometimes known as respondeat superior) can be used to hold an employer responsible for the conduct of an employee.

Of course, not every action by a worker amounts to liability for the company for which he or she works. A recent case explored the law in Texas with respect to this issue.

Facts of the Case

In a recently decided car accident case, the plaintiffs were the representatives of the estate of a young woman who died in a motor vehicle accident and two survivors of the same accident. They filed suit against the defendants, the employer (and several of its affiliates) of the driver who was at fault in the accident, alleging that the defendants were liable for the wrongful death and personal injuries that occurred in the accident. As grounds, the plaintiffs set forth claims of both vicarious liability and direct negligence (negligent entrustment and negligence in hiring, supervision, and retention) concerning the employee who caused the fatal collision.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all claims. The plaintiffs appealed.

Determination of the Court of Appeals of Texas

The appellate court affirmed. Under Texas law, an employer can only be held vicariously liable for the tortious acts of an employee if he or she was acting within the course and scope of his or her employment at the time of the act in question. Although the plaintiffs alleged that there was evidence that the at-fault driver was using his personal vehicle in furtherance of the defendants’ business at the time of the accident, the court disagreed. Instead, the court found that the at-fault driver was off duty, driving his personal vehicle, and pursuing a social (rather than business) matter when the accident occurred.

In so holding, the court noted that the at-fault driver was an employee of an oilfield services company that paid him a per diem for living expenses. On the night of the accident, he had been off duty for at least three hours. Although he had been eating and drinking beer with his coworkers – and was on his way to visit a foreman employed by the defendants – the court found that the plaintiffs’ argument that the foreman had requested that the at-fault driver come to see him for a business-related purpose was a mischaracterization of the evidence.

Instead, according to the court, “indulging every reasonable inference” in the plaintiffs’ favor, at most the foreman invited the at-fault driver to “come over and hang out.” Thus, the court found that there was nothing in the record before the trial court to suggest that the at-fault driver had been ordered or was in any way required to drive himself or others to the foreman’s residence to discuss business.

As to the plaintiffs’ direct negligence claims regarding the defendants’ hiring, retention, and supervision of the at-fault driver, the defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the plaintiffs had failed to prove that the accident happened during the course and scope of the at-fault driver’s employment.

Have You Been Injured in an East Texas Car Accident?

If you have questions about an east Texas car accident or wrongful death case, Attorney Earl Drott is board-certified in personal injury law and has 34 years of experience helping injured Texans seek fair compensation after accidents caused by others’ negligence. Call him at (903) 531-9300 to schedule a free consultation.

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