Your driver is operating a company-owned vehicle and is involved in an accident while working. You investigate and take corrective action but no claim is made. Nearly three years go by without a word, and then out of the blue, you are served with a lawsuit. Your company has been sued.
Rather than suing your employee-driver, only your company is named as a defendant. The complaint clearly states that the employee-driver was negligent. But, rather than alleging negligent hiring or supervision against your company, the complaint simply states that because the employee-driver was in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident, the employee-driver’s negligence is imputed to your company. Can your company be liable when the employee-driver isn’t even on trial?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. As long as there is a viable claim against the employee-driver, a plaintiff may sue the employer-vehicle-owner alone under the theory of respondeat superior. That phrase is a legal term meaning “let the master answer.” It allows the employer to be held responsible for the negligent actions of its employee performed while in the course and scope of employment. Further, North Carolina General Statute Section 20-71.1 states that a plaintiff only needs to show proof that your company owned the vehicle to create a presumption that the employee was working at the time of the accident. Where an employer may be held responsible under the theory of respondeat superior, a plaintiff may sue the employee-owner or the employee-driver alone or together. See Bullock v. Crouch, 243 N.C. 40, 42, 89 S.E.2d 749, 751 (1955). This means that even if your employee-driver is long gone, your company may be left defending the suit without any sympathetic witnesses.
This does not necessarily mean, however, that a plaintiff can sue your employee alone and, if that does not work, take another bite at the apple against your company. Where there is a decision on the merits (by a judge or jury) that the employee is not liable, a plaintiff may not bring a second claim against the employer. See id.
The information published in Hedrick Gardner Alerts is general in nature and not intended to take the place of legal advice on any particular matter. © 2017 Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo LLP