Employer Responsibility in a North Carolina Motorcycle Accident Case

busIn some cases, an employer can be held responsible for an employee’s negligence in a motor vehicle accident case. Lewis v. Morgan involved a charter bus company run by a husband and wife. The company employed four drivers, and occasionally the husband drove buses too. Some drivers had keys to the gate where buses were parked. If a driver who didn’t have a key needed a bus in the morning, it was the husband’s responsibility to unlock the gate so that the driver could get the bus for work.

In 2011, one of the company’s drivers called the husband and wife and asked for the gate to be opened so that he could pick people up at their hotels and drive them to the offices of a business with which the company had a contract. The following morning, the husband drove over to open the gate for the driver. However, as he turned left, he hit the plaintiff, who was riding his motorcycle the opposite way. The plaintiff was seriously injured, and the husband was cited for failure to yield.

The plaintiff sued the husband, the charter bus company, and another company owned by the couple. He claimed that the husband’s negligent driving injured him and that the charter bus company should be vicariously liable for his injuries. He also argued that the corporate veil between the charter bus company and the other company owned by the couple should be pierced. The husband’s attorney denied fault in his answer, but at deposition, the husband admitted liability.

The charter bus company’s insurer sued in federal court for a declaratory judgment that its policy didn’t cover the plaintiff’s claims. The case was stayed while the federal action continued. In 2014, the plaintiff asked for partial summary judgment, arguing there was no factual issue related to the issues of negligence, respondeat superior, and piercing the corporate veil. He claimed the only issue was damages.

The charter bus company also filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that the husband wasn’t acting in the course and scope of his employment with the bus company when he came to open the gate. The trial court granted the husband’s motion and denied the plaintiff’s motion. The plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court explained that the liability of a principal for an agent’s negligence can happen:  (1) if the agent’s act is expressly authorized, (2) the principal ratifies the agent’s act, or (3) the agent’s act is committed within the scope of employment to further the principal’s business. The third option is based on respondeat superior.

The plaintiff argued a jury could find for him based on respondeat superior because there was evidence he was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The appellate court explained an employee isn’t in the employer’s business if he is driving to and from the workplace, except when he’s performing a duty owed to the employer when driving.

However, the defendant likened the case to an earlier one in which a superintendent responsible for turning on store lights during holidays hit a pedestrian. The court in that case found the employee’s sole duty was to turn on the lights, and this duty couldn’t be performed before arriving at the store. Therefore, respondeat superior didn’t apply. In this case, the accident happened before the husband unlocked the gate. The company didn’t control how he traveled there, nor did it have an interest in the car driven. There was no evidence the husband was on call. The lower court’s judgment was affirmed.

If you were hurt in a motorcycle accident by somebody acting in the course and scope of his employment, Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 919-229-8359 or via our online form.

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