Employers can be Liable for Torts Committed by their Employees Using Personal Vehicles for Work Purposes, Even When Those Employees Deviate or Detour from their Work Purposes

Employers who require their employees to use their personal vehicles for work-related purposes, or who send their employees on special or business errands during or after work, can be liable for accidents involving their employees, even when those employees are slightly deviating from their work destinations.

In Moradi v. Marsh USA, Inc. (Cal. Ct. App., Sept. 17, 2013) 2013 WL 5203485, the California Court of Appeal determined that where an employer required an employee to use her personal vehicle to travel to and from the office and make work-related trips, the employer was subject to liability for an auto accident involving the employee while she was on a slight deviation from her work-related activities under the doctrine of respondeat superior and the “required vehicle” exception.  (Id. at *1.)

The doctrine of respondeat superior holds that employers can be vicariously liable for torts committed by their employees during the course and scope of their employment.  Most employers are relieved of liability, however, where the “going and coming” rule applies, such as where an employee is involved in an auto accident coming or going to work.  This is because the employee is not yet within the course and course of his employment.  (Id. at *4.)

An exception to the “going and coming” rule is the “required vehicle” exception.  This exception requires a close examination of the facts and a consideration of whether the use of the employee’s vehicle provides some incidental benefit to the employer.  (Id.)  “The exception can apply if the use of a personally owned vehicle is either an express or implied condition of employment …, or if the employee has agreed, expressly or implicitly, to make the vehicle available as an accommodation to the employer and the employer has ‘reasonably come to rely upon its use and [to] expect the employee to make the vehicle available on a regular basis while still not requiring it as a condition of employment.’ ” (Id. [quoting Lobo v. Tamco (2010) 182 Cal.App.4th 297, 301, citations omitted].)

In Moradi the employee was required to use her personal vehicle to drive to and from the office, meet prospective clients at various locations, and transport materials and co-workers to various destinations.  (Id. at *1.)  She was reimbursed for her business mileage.  (Id. at *2.)  On the day of the auto accident, the employee left the office and decided to pick up some yogurt and attend a yoga class before going home.  Both destinations were within the same zip code as her home.  When making a left turn, her vehicle collided with a motorcyclist.  (Id.)

The employer argued that it was not liable for the accident because the employee was not working or pursuing work-related activities when the accident occurred, but rather was pursuing personal interests.  (Id. at *3.)  Although the trial court agreed and granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the Court of Appeal reversed.  (Id. at *3-16.)

After analyzing numerous cases which discussed the doctrine of respondeat superior, the “going and coming” rule, and the “required vehicle” exception, the court held the employer could be liable for the accident under the “required vehicle” exception because the use of the employee’s personal vehicle provided an incidental benefit to the employer, the planned stops did not change the employer’s incidental benefit, the planned stops were a foreseeable, minor deviation, and they “were not so unusual or startling that it would be unfair to include the resulting loss among the other costs of the employer’s business.”  (Id. at *1.)  Thus, the employee was still acting within the course and scope of her employment when the accident occurred, causing liability to be imposed on the employer.

The court determined that it would have been “unreasonable and inconvenient” for the employee to go home, stop, turn around, and head back to the yogurt shop and yoga class.  (Id. at *11.)  “‘[W]e can think of no conduct more predictable than an employee’s stopping [for something to eat or taking an exercise class] … on the way home. Where, as here, the trip home is made for the benefit of the employer, … accidents occurring during such minor and foreseeable deviations become part of the ‘inevitable toll of a lawful enterprise.’ ’ ”  (Id. at *11 [quoting Lazar v. Thermal Equipment Corp. (1983) 148 Cal.App.3d 458, 466].)

The court also examined the special errand rule which is more narrow that the “required vehicle” exception.  ” ‘If the employee is not simply on his way from his home to his normal place of work or returning from said place to his home for his own purpose, but is coming from his home or returning to it on a special errand either as part of his regular duties or at a specific order or request of his employer, the employee is considered to be in the scope of his employment from the time that he starts on the errand until he has returned or until he deviates therefrom for personal reasons.’ ’ ”  (Id. at *11 [quoting Felix v. Asai (1987) 192 Cal.App.3d 926, 931].)

Examples of the special errand rule are when an employer sends an employee on an errand which occurs before, during, or after designated work hours.  Employers will be liable for an employee’s acts committed during these special errands unless it is determined that the employee abandoned the special errand in pursuit of a personal objective.  (Id. at *12.)

Factors to consider are “[ (1) ] the intent of the employee, [ (2) ] the nature, time and place of the employee’s conduct, [ (3) ] the work the employee was hired to do, [ (4) ] the incidental acts the employer should reasonably have expected the employee to do, [ (5) ] the amount of freedom allowed the employee in performing his duties, and [ (6) ] the amount of time consumed in the personal activity…. While the question of whether an employee has departed from his special errand is normally one of fact for the jury, where the evidence clearly shows a complete abandonment, the court may make the determination that the employee is outside the scope of his employment as a matter of law.”  (Id. at *12 [quoting Felix, supra, 192 Cal.App.3d at 932-933].)

Here, however, the Court refused to consider the special errand rule and its factors because it deemed that the circumstances warranted the application of the “required vehicle” exception.  (Id. *12.)

If your company needs advice on whether it may be susceptible to liability for acts committed by, or involving, your employees while they are out of the office, Michel & Associates, P.C. can assist you.