Business Phone Calls Before or After Accident Do Not Create Respondeat Superior Liability
The Georgia Court of Appeals recently refused to extend the doctrine of respondeat superior liability to an employer based on work-related phone calls that took place approximately 25 minutes before and 45 minutes after the accident at issue. Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer can be liable for the negligence of its employees if the employee was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the injury. In the situation where an accident occurs while an employee was driving his employer’s vehicle, a rebuttal presumption arises that the employee was in the course and scope of his employment; however, it is well established that, as a general rule, an employer is not liable for the actions of its employees while the employee is going to and from work.
In Archer Forestry, LLC v. Dolatowski, 331 Ga. App. 676 (2015), the plaintiff sought to hold the defendant driver’s employer responsible because, although he was driving home at the time of the accident, he made work-related phone calls before and after the accident at issue. The trial court denied Archer Forestry summary judgment, holding that the question of respondeat superior liability should be submitted to the jury based on the aforementioned phone calls. Archery Forestry appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, ordering the trial court to enter summary judgment on behalf of Archery Forestry on the issue of respondeat superior and holding that there was no evidence from which a jury could find that the defendant driver was in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident. In doing so, the Court of Appeals noted that “there was no evidence, or even an assertion, that the defendant driver was on a business call at the time of the collision.” Id. at 680.
In a world of almost continuous availability with smart devices, this decision is crucial for preserving the limits of respondeat superior liability. A decision to the contrary could have led to almost unlimited respondeat superior liability, allowing plaintiffs to create a jury issue with evidence that the employee driver had performed some work at some point before or after an accident. Taking to the extreme, such a ruling could have led to an argument that respondeat superior liability should attach based on evidence that, at some point during the drive, the employee-driver thought about work. Instead, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed that, when an employee-driver is driving to or from work, he must be engaged in work at the exact time of the accident, solidifying the limits of respondeat superior liability.