When are employers liable for negligence of their employees? For example, when an employee is driving a company vehicle and gets in a car accident, when can his/her employer be held liable for the injuries caused by the employee? The legal standard – vicarious liability – has been around for a long time, but last week the Texas Supreme Court added a much-needed clarity to it.
In Texas, before an employer can be held liable for its employees’ negligence, the following two questions must be answered:
- At the time of the negligent act, was the worker an employee (as opposed to an independent contractor) of the employer?
- At the time of the negligent act, was the worker acting in the course and scope of his or her employment?
If the answer to both of these questions is “yes,” then the employer can be held liable for that employee’s negligent conduct.
The “Control” Question. The answer to the first question depends on whether an employer has the right to control the details and progress of the worker’s job. The Supreme Court clarified that the “control” question is not evaluated on a task-by-task basis, but is a question of general control over the worker. If an employer does not dispute that a particular worker is its employee, then the question of control becomes irrelevant and the party seeking vicarious liability can skip to the second question in the analysis.
In Painter, et al. v. Amerimex Drilling, I., Ltd., the employer conceded that the driller that got into a car accident injuring several people was an employee. Nevertheless, it argued that because it exercised no control over the details of the driller’s driving at the time of the accident, i.e., the particular task during which the incident occurred, it could not be vicariously liable. The Texas Supreme Court rejected this argument and stated that once the employer-employee relationship was established, the only remaining question was whether at the at the time of the accident the driller was acting in the scope and course of his employment.
The “Scope and Course of Employment” Question. This question seeks to determine whether an employee committed a negligent act while performing his duties for the employer or while he was doing something unrelated. A classic law school example would be a driver, who is still “on the clock” taking a detour to run a personal errand and getting into an accident while doing so. In that situation, his employer would not be vicariously liable because the employee was acting outside the course and scope of the employment.
In Painter, et al., the driller got into a car accident while he was driving the drilling crew from the drilling site to the campsite provided by the employer. Normally, driving to and from work would not be considered to be within the course and scope of employment. However, in this case, the driller received $50 bonus from his employer for driving the crew between the drilling site and the campsite, the employer was contractually required to pay such a bonus, and there was evidence that the driller was providing the driving services as part of his assigned job duties. Therefore, when the driller got into an accident while driving the drilling crew from the drill site to their campsite, the Court concluded that he could have been acting within the course and scope of his employment and the employer was not entitled to a summary judgment on this issue.*
BOTTOM LINE: Texas employers can be held liable for their employees’ negligence as long as the negligent act occurred when the employee was performing his or her duties for the employer. Where the employer-employee relationship is not disputed, the only question that stands between the employer and the vicarious liability for employee’s actions is whether, at the time of the accident, the employee acted within the course and scope of his employment or whether he deviated from his/her duties.
Therefore, Texas employers must carefully consider how they structure employment relationships, contractual obligations and risk-shifting provisions, and how they describe and define employees’ duties. In facing the question of vicarious liability in litigation, employers should carefully analyze the situation using the Painter framework.
*Justices Green and Brown penned a dissenting opinion arguing that the proper standard for “control” analysis in vicarious liability cases should be on a task-by-task basis.
Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice. Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation. You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.