In California, employers are generally liable for the actions of their employees. Known by its Latin name, respondeat superior, the rule is part of the much larger concept encompassing vicarious liability. Under California’s respondeat superior rule, an employer may be found liable for the damage caused by an employee’s accident, even when that employee uses their personal vehicle for their employer’s business purposes. This rule applies, and therefore attaches liability to the employer, when an employee is acting within the ordinary scope of his or her employment, and as the result of the employee’s wrongful actions, someone is injured. This generally holds true whether the employee is using their own car or their employer’s vehicle.
An exception to this rule, however, is the “coming and going rule” which stands for the premise that an employer may be excluded from liability when an employee’s accident occurs when the employee is commuting to and from work. Again, the most controlling factor in determining liability in this instance the purpose of the travel.
Within the “coming and going rule”, there exists the “vehicle use exception”. Under this exception, an employer may still be liable for an employee’s accident during their commute when: the possession and use of the vehicle is required by the employer, or the possession and use of the vehicle provided a benefit to the employer. In 2018, the California Court of Appeal of the Second Appellate District narrowed the “vehicle use exception” with their ruling in Newland v. County of Los Angeles.
The Newland court examined the accident of Prigo, a Los Angeles County public defender who was involved in an automobile accident on his way home form work in his own vehicle. It was undisputed that Prigo was regularly required to use his personal vehicle to drive to various Los Angeles County courthouses, crime scenes, and meetings. As a result, the trial court ruled that the central issue in the case was whether Prigo was required (either expressly or impliedly) to use his personal vehicle to perform the duties of his job for the county, and the jury found that he did, such a requirement would attach liability to the County via the vehicle use exception to the “coming and going” rule.
The Court of Appeal, however, reversed the trial court’s decision and held that there was not enough evidence to show that Prigo was neither required to drive a vehicle by his employer, nor was he driving a vehicle for his employer’s benefit at the time of the accident.
As for the first prong, the Court found that even though Prigo used his personal vehicle to drive to various Los Angeles County courthouses, crime scenes, and meetings everyday he was not required to do so. The Court pointed to the fact that the County did not require their deputy public defenders to obtain a personal vehicle to perform their jobs and allowed them to use alternative transportation to commute to work in lieu of carrying a valid California Class C driver’s license.
As for the second prong, Prigo’s accident occurred while making a stop at the post office for his own benefit while on the commute home from work. Thus, the court found, that at the time of the accident he was not driving his car within the course and scope of his employment nor was he driving for his employer’s benefit.
As such, the Newland Court reversed the trial court’s ruling, and found that the vehicle use exception to the “coming and going” rule did not apply to Prigo, and thus the County was not liable for his accident.
By ruling as it did in Newland, the court essentially held that the vehicle use exception to the “coming and going” rule is not an on-off switch. An employer will only be liable when they either required the employee vehicle or benefited from the employee travel. This narrowed approach to the exception will likely cause employers to be liable for employee accidents in less instances, as the circumstances where the exception applies will be fewer and far between. Likewise, employers may stand a better chance at avoiding liability for employee accidents by tailoring their travel requirements to comport with the Court’s narrow view of the vehicle use exception.
Evan McBride is an associate at Powers Miller whose practice specializes in civil liability stemming from vehicle accidents and other personal injury matters.