This question recently came up from a potential client, and I wanted to try and answer the question for others. In Texas, there are several situations where a company is liable for a wreck caused by its employee. (And I’ve included an image of a truck wreck because most of these issues come up in trucking cases.)
The first situation is called vicarious liability or respondeat superior. In Texas, an employer is liable for injuries caused by its employee when the wreck happens while the employee is in the course and scope of his employment. Not a hard standard to meet. There are a bunch of cases discussing the grey areas of what course and scope includes (driving to or from work; employee detours from his business driving to conduct a personal errand; etc.), but other than those boundaries, this is a pretty easy question and the easiest way to establish liability. As an aside, if the employee is in a company owned vehicle, then there’s a presumption that he was acting in the course and scope of his employment while the employee was performing his job and while the employee was driving to and from work.
There are also important related claims where the employer may be liable for its own conduct. The first instance of that is negligent entrustment. Under that theory, an employer can be liable for entrusting a vehicle to an employee that the employer knew or should have known was an unlicensed, incompetent, or reckless driver. These usually occur in situations where the driver has a history of tickets, wrecks, a drinking problem, or something similar.
The next theory is negligent hiring, retention and supervision. In Texas, an employer has a duty to investigate its employees’ skills before hiring them. The claim here is similar to a negligent entrustment theory, but due to some legal technicalities, the negligent hiring, retention and supervision claims are much preferred to the negligent entrustment claims. But the same type of background check (driving records, calling previous employers, etc) is all relevant. Negligent retention covers the same type of analysis, but generally looks at the driver’s conduct between the time of hiring and the date of the wreck that the lawsuit is about.
The last common claim is the negligent training claim. Again, if an employer knows that a training program for its drivers is necessary to protect others, but fails to exercise reasonable care in training its drivers, then the company is liable for the damage caused.
Now, I hear you asking, “If the company is already vicariously liable because the driver was driving in the course and scope of employment, why do the negligent hiring or negligent entrustment or negligent training claims matter?” Punitive damages.
The independent acts of negligence are important to give a jury more ways to award punitive damages. When the company has a driver that it knows drives drunk, for example, then a jury will not only award punitive damages against the driver, but the jury will also likely award punitive damages against the company.
But maybe more importantly is that these claims affect what evidence the jury hears. If you have a simple negligence claim where the employee driver caused the wreck and the injured person is only claiming that the employer is liable for the damages based on respondeat superior, then a lot of good evidence is probably not admissible. For example, if you know that the employee driver has a long history of accidents and tickets, those likely don’t get into evidence in the main part of the typical car wreck or truck accident trial because whether the driver had previous wrecks isn’t really relevant to whether the driver was negligent in this wreck. (Some defense lawyers may even try to stipulate to liability to try and keep this evidence out.)
But if you claim that the employer was negligent for not investigating the driver’s background and finding out about those tickets and accidents, then those becomes relevant and admissible and the jury gets to hear about them. And you can be sure that the jury hearing that type of information will make a big difference in the case. So these claims against an employer for its own negligence, with a claim for punitive damages, need to be pursued to help the case.
So that’s a general overview. There are other specific rules that I’m more than happy to answer if you leave a comment. There are also specific answers for trucking cases, but that might be another post.
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