In early 2017, a 30-year-old motorcyclist was struck from behind by a SoCal Gas Company vehicle while sitting at a red light in Hawthorne. He became wedged under the vehicle and was dragged for more than 400 feet. The accident caused the rider to suffer severe injuries to his right leg, requiring him to undergo multiple surgeries. Amputation could be necessary in the future if he develops any complications.
The motorcyclist filed a motorcycle accident lawsuit against SoCal Gas to recover compensation for his injuries. The lawsuit claimed that the company knew that the employee driving the truck at the time of the accident suffered from random seizures. Despite this knowledge, the company still permitted him to get behind the wheel of a company truck.
After months of litigation, SoCal Gas agreed to settle the lawsuit for $46 million.
Employers Can Be Liable for Harm Caused By Employees
An employer can be held personally liable for harm caused by an employee. In California, this is thanks to the state’s Respondeat Superior law. Respondeat superior literally means “let the master answer.” In other words, let the employer answer for the harmful actions of its employees.
What’s the point of Respondeat superior? The law encourages employers to (a) hire and train qualified candidates, (b) review employee performance, and (c) deter negligent or dangerous behavior on the job. If an employer is involved and demonstrates oversight, accidents involving employees are less likely to happen.
Employers also tend to have deeper pockets than their employees. If an accident happens, victims may be more likely to recover compensation if the employer is involved.
There are limits to when an employer can be vicariously liable for the actions of an employee:
- The employee must be acting within the ordinary scope of their employment, and
- Someone gets hurt because of the employee’s negligent or wrongful actions.
What’s the Ordinary Scope of Employment?
An employer is only responsible for harm caused by employees who are acting within the ordinary scope of their employment. Conduct is within the ordinary scope if it is reasonably:
- Related to the kinds of tasks the employee was hired to do; or
- Foreseeable in light of the employer’s business or employee’s job responsibilities.
In other words, if an employee who is performing a task that they should typically be paid for, they’re acting within the scope of their employment.
Negligent Hiring and Supervision Can Cause Accidents
Employers can also be liable for harm caused by an employee if they were negligent in the hiring or supervision of that employee. In the SoCal Gas case, the accident was caused by one of the company’s drivers. SoCal allowed the employee to operate one of its commercial vehicles, despite knowing that:
- The driver suffered from epilepsy and was prone to random seizures
- The driver’s license had been suspended in 2012
- The driver returned to work and continued to have epileptic seizures, and
- Medication did not prevent the driver’s random seizures.
In other words, SoCal knew that the employee had a history of seizures, including at least one at work, but didn’t do anything to prevent him from driving.
Having a seizure behind the wheel can be incredibly dangerous. It’s negligent to allow an employee with a history of seizures, including at least one at work, to drive. SoCal should have taken action and reassigned the employee to a job that didn’t involve operating a vehicle. Instead, they allowed an employee to get behind the wheel knowing that he could have a seizure.
Now a Los Angeles motorcyclist’s life has been changed forever. While $46 million won’t let him turn back the clock, it will help as he and his family struggle to get back on their feet.