Many employers have policies regarding the use of cell phones while driving, including the requirement to use the car’s hands-free, Bluetooth phone system, and abide by all applicable laws. But what happens when an employee still abides by the employer’s policy, is involved in a car accident, and causes injuries to a third party? Can the employer be held liable under the theory of respondeat superior?
Well, it depends on the facts and circumstances of the case. By way of background, respondeat superior means that an employer is vicariously liable for the torts of its employees when these employees commit the wrongful acts within the scope of their employment. California courts have held that the determination of whether an employee has acted within the scope of employment is a question of fact, but it also can be a question of law in circumstances where the facts cannot be disputed and there can be no conflicting inferences possible.
The California Court of Appeal in Ayon v. Esquire Deposition Solutions (decided on Sept. 21, 2018) was faced with this issue and held that under the facts presented the employer was not liable for the actions of its employee because there was no evidence that the employee in question was acting within the scope of her employment at the time of the accident.
In Ayon, the plaintiff’s car was struck by Brittini Zuppardo (“Zuppardo”), the scheduling manager of defendant Esquire Deposition Solutions (“Esquire”) while Zuppardo was driving. At the time of the accident, Zuppardo was on the phone with one of Esquire’s court reporters using her car’s hands-free Bluetooth phone system. This phone call (and hence the accident) occurred after normal business hours.
The plaintiff filed suit against Esquire and Zuppardo for personal injuries. Esquire filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiff could not establish Esquire was vicariously liable for any damages its employee caused. The trial court agreed with Esquire, and the plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, the Court found that, based on the evidence presented, Zuppardo was not acting within the course and scope of her employment, particularly since (a) the phone call in question was after-hours, (b) Zuppardo was not on a work errand, but rather was coming home from a social engagement, and (c) although the phone call was with one of Esquire’s court reporters, Zuppardo and the court reporter were also friends and the conversation was not about work matters, but rather personal in nature. In sum, the trial court concluded that there was no evidence that Zuppardo talked about work matters at the time of the accident.
In Ayon, the Court found convincing the testimony of the Esquire employees who denied that they were discussing anything concerning work. And, their testimony was supported by undisputed evidence that (a) Zuppardo only made after-hours work calls on rare occasions, (b) it was not within her usual job duties, and (c) the two were friends. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court’s findings in favor of Esquire.
While it is unclear from Ayon whether the employee’s use of her cell phone (albeit hands-free) was a contributing factor to the accident, the employer was successful in avoiding liability in this case. Nevertheless, the outcome of this case may have been different if the employee was not using a hands-free device at the time of the accident. As such, enforcing policies can reduce the risk of claims.