Showing posts with label vicarious liability. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vicarious liability. Show all posts

Monday, September 4, 2023

Federal law shields car dealer in courtesy-car accident

CC0 by Open Grid Scheduler via Flickr
A car dealership could not be held vicariously liable to a pedestrian struck by a courtesy vehicle, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in June.

A New Jersey Mercedes Benz dealer lent a customer, defendant Oke, a courtesy car while Oke's car was being repaired. After traveling to Boston (an apparent excess of the radius permitted by the courtesy-car contract), Oke left the key in the ignition, engine running, and his wife, Steele (no relation), in the passenger seat, while he attended to business. When a parking official demanded that the car be moved, Steele's attempt to do so resulted in collision with, and serious injury to, the pedestrian-plaintiff.

The laws of many states permit an injured person to pursue the owner of a vehicle in vicarious liability, regardless of the owner's fault. In a 2005 federal highway bill, Congress preempted and disallowed no-fault vicarious liability when the vehicle owner is a rental company. According to FindLaw, Congress was troubled by the likes of a $21m vicarious liability award against Budget in New York. The statutory language, "the Graves Amendment," was named for Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), who estimated that vicarious liability awards cost car rental companies some $100m annually, a cost passed on to consumers.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Graves Amendment protected the New Jersey car dealer. The courtesy-car arrangement was part of the transaction for car service, the court reasoned, so akin to a rental agreement.

The court thus dismissed claims against the car dealer. However, reversing, the court remanded the plaintiff's claim against Oke for negligent entrustment. The trial court must resolve a question of fact, the court opined, before the negligent entrustment claim can be adjudicated. The plaintiff plausibly alleged that Oke had, under the circumstances, implicitly authorized Steele to move the car if necessary.

The surviving claim based on negligent entrustment provides a worthwhile reminder that, upon other facts, the Graves Amendment does not let car rental companies off the hook for liability theories in negligence, such as negligent entrustment and negligent maintenance.

The case is Garcia v. Steele, No. SJC-13378 (Mass. June 27, 2023) (FindLaw). Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt wrote the court's unanimous opinion.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Malaysian court upholds civil liability for security firm after employee-bodyguard shot, killed own client

With attenuated liability theories arising from contemporary gun violence proliferating—in lawsuits against parents, schools, sellers, and government—a case of vicarious liability for gun violence in Malaysia caught my attention.

In October 2022, the Malaysian Federal Court affirmed a liability award to a shooting victim against the security firm that employed the shooter.

In 2016, businessman Ong Teik Kwong, whom police investigated for ties to organized crime but never charged, was in a car in George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia, when he got into an argument with his bodyguard, Ja'afar Halid. Halid shot and killed his client Ong, then proceeded to shoot seven other people, killing two.

One of the surviving shooting victims was the plaintiff in the instant case, Mohamad Amirul Amin Bin Mohamed Amir. A news videographer for Radio Televisyen Malaysia, Amirul was passing on a motorcycle and stopped to aid one of the victims. He told the courts that he did not know Halid was armed. Halid shot Amirul. Star TV News reported the lower court outcome in 2019.

Halid was tried, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. I can find no subsequent report of whether or when execution occurred.

Amirul meanwhile won compensation against GMP Kaisar Security upon a theory of respondeat superior, or vicarious liability running through employment. The Malaysian legal system is a hybrid of colonial common law and customary and Islamic law. The law of obligations with regard to respondeat superior is substantially a product of British common law, and the key test for respondeat superior is the same: An employer may be held liable for the acts of an employee within the scope of employment.

My torts class and textbook introduce respondeat superior in the study of negligence, when many theories of vicarious liability become salient. It's important for students to learn, though, that respondeat superior is not a negligence doctrine. It operates irrespective of culpability.

That said, it's often difficult for plaintiffs to prove respondeat superior liability when an employee commits an intentional act, especially a criminal act of violence. Criminal violence is not usually part of someone's job, so the employee-perpetrator acts outside the scope of employment.

That's what makes the Malaysian case interesting. On the one hand, as a bodyguard, Halid had one of those rare jobs in which committing an act of violence, even a murder, might come within the scope of employment. On the other hand, Halid killed the very man he was supposed to protect.

Those facts suggest that the case would fail upon the usual analysis. But the lower and higher Malaysian courts focused on the carrying of a firearm rather than on the act of killing. In Malaysia, unlike the United States, there is no right to bear a firearm. Licenses are attainable, but the system is restrictive.

Federal Court Judge Harmindar Singh Dhaliwal reasoned:

Now, Jaafar's actions may have been unauthorized by his employer but the pertinent question to ask is whether Jaafar's actions in unlawfully discharging his firearm and causing injury to Amirul was so closely connected with his employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employer vicariously liable. On the facts of this case and for the reasons we have already stated, the answer must be yes. To put it in another way, Jaafar's wrongful act was not independent from the task he was employed to do.

Relying on a Canadian precedent, the court offered a further rationale that squares well with the scope of civil liability in American tort law.

The Supreme Court of Canada ... explain[ed] that vicarious liability is generally appropriately involved where there is a significant connection between the creation or enhancement of risk and the wrong that flows from the risk. The risk reasonably to be perceived defines the duty to be obeyed, and risk imports relation; it is a risk to another or to others within the range of apprehension.

The above-referenced cases arising from gun violence in the United States involve direct liability, not vicarious liability. They allege that the defendants were themselves negligent, and that their negligence proximately caused the later intentional shootings. The causal link is not easily proved.

Despite the distinction, there is a common concept animating the imposition of liability upon the attenuation of employment and upon the attenuation of causation. Scope of employment posits essentially that the pursuit of the employer's ends, if not the culpability of the employer, proximately resulted in the employee's injurious act.

All the same, the Malaysian Federal Court's conclusion would be difficult to reach on comparable facts in the United States. With gun possession a matter of license rather than right, it was easier for the Malaysian court than it would be for an American court to focus on the entrustment of the firearm rather than the use of it. As a matter of strict vicarious liability, rather than direct negligence, an American court would not be persuaded easily to effect the same shift in focus.

The case is GMP Kaisar Security v. Amirul, Civ. App. No. 02(f)-44-07-2021(P), [2023] 1 MLRA 99 (FCJ Oct. 18, 2022).

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Police officer delivering lunch was on the job for worker comp but not for statutory immunity, court rules

Pixabay by Ronald Plett (license)
A personal injury claim against a police officer's automobile insurer highlights the different scope of what it means to be "on the job" for purposes of statutory immunity and worker compensation.

In a case the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decided in late October, Raynham, Mass., police officers on mandatory firearms training on public property in 2017 organized takeout for lunch for a paid break.  Returning to the training site in his personal truck with the takeout, one officer drove the gravel path "faster than [he] should have," braked, and slid into and injured another officer seated at a picnic table.

The plaintiff-officer was permitted to claim state worker compensation, because he was injured on the job.  The defendant-driver's insurer meanwhile claimed immunity under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, because the insured acted "within the scope of his ... employment."  The SJC denied the insurer of the defense.

The common law test for "vicarious liability, respondeat superior, and agency," the court explained, is "whether the act was in furtherance of the employer's work," and the same test informs the invocation of statutory immunity.  That analysis comprises three factors in Massachusetts law: "(1) 'whether the conduct in question is of the kind the employee is hired to perform'; (2) 'whether it occurs within authorized time and space limits'; and (3) 'whether it is motivated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the employer.'"

Only the middle factor favored the insurer, the court opined, so the analysis on balance disfavored immunity.

Worker compensation and common law master-servant doctrine are indistinguishable as a practical matter in many cases, when an employee suffers injury doing the employer's bidding.  Doctrines in both veins rely on "scope" or "course of employment" tests.

But even when the language is the same, the tests differ, and in some cases, the difference matters.  Worker compensation tests only loosely for a causal connection between employment and injury, thus famously allowing a traveling salesman to recover when his overnight motel was destroyed by a tornado.  Vicarious liability, and thus, Massachusetts immunity, requires a closer causal nexus between the employee's specific pursuit and the injury that results.

In this analysis, the defendant-driver's lunchtime carelessness, for which he was suspended for five days, was not a "frolic" as escapes worker compensation coverage, but, at the same time, was not in furtherance of the employer's work, so qualified for neither vicarious liability nor statutory immunity.

The case is Berry v. Commerce Insurance Co., No. SJC-13089 (Mass. Oct. 25, 2021).  Justice Dalila Wendlandt wrote the unanimous court opinion.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Law student, doctor's blog explores medmal issues

An alum of my Torts I & II classes and a medical doctor, Joseph Grillo is doing some intriguing blogging at his Medical-Legal Consulting website.  Here's a teaser to a recent (May 31) item: 

Vicarious Liability Doctrines in Medical Malpractice: Ostensible or Apparent Agency
It is commonplace today that hospitals do not employ physicians. Instead the physician is considered an independent contractor. This relationship may muddy the waters when trying to hold a hospital to account under vicarious liability.

There exists an exception to the general rule that a hospital incurs no liability for the negligence of independent contractors but only for those who provide care within the traditional employment relationship.

The doctrine of ostensible agency or apparent authority has been the predominant theory upon which to base an action for vicarious liability against a hospital for the negligence of independent contractors.