Recent Decisions Abrogate “Respondeat Superior Rule”
The Court of Appeals recently vacated its holding in the case of Quynn v. Hulsey, A19A0689 (08-20-2021) to adopt the opinion of the Georgia Supreme Court in Quynn v. Hulsey, 310 Ga. 473 (2020). In this noteworthy opinion, the Georgia Supreme Court analyzed the impact the apportionment statute (O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33) has on the common law Respondeat Superior Rule.
The Respondeat Superior Rule was first adopted by the Court of Appeals in Willis v. Hill, 116 Ga. App. 848, 853-868 (1967), reversed on other grounds, Hill v. Willis, 224 Ga. 263 (1968). The Court of Appeals has explained as a basis for the Rule that because the employer would be liable for the employee’s negligence under respondeat superior, allowing claims for negligent entrustment, hiring, [training], and retention would not entitle the plaintiff to a greater recovery, but would merely serve to prejudice the employer. MasTec North Am. v. Wilson, 325 Ga. App. 863, 865 (2014) (citations and punctuation omitted); Quynn, 310 Ga. at 475.
The apportionment statute was enacted as part of the tort reform of 2005 and requires that “once liability has been established and the damages sustained by the plaintiff have been calculated, the trier of fact must then assess the relative fault of all those who contributed to the plaintiff’s injury- including the plaintiff himself- and apportion the damages based on this assessment of relative fault.” Martin v. Six Flags Over Georgia II, L.P., 301 Ga. 323, 338 (III) (2017); Quynn, 310 Ga. at 476.
When analyzing the way these two laws interact in practice, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled has now ruled that Respondeat Superior Rule cannot be fairly understood as a defense or immunity as it did not allow an employer-defendant to avoid liability for any portion of the plaintiff’s damages. Quynn, 310 Ga. at 481. The Court noted, “[a]ssuming dubiously that the Respondeat Superior Rule constituted the ‘common law’ of this State when the apportionment statute was enacted, ‘statutes in derogation of the common law… must be limited strictly to the meaning of the language employed, and not extend beyond the plain and explicit terms of the statute.’” Id. at 481 (citing Couch v. Red Roof Inns. Inc., 291 Ga. 359, 367-365 (2012)). Further, “a plaintiff’s claims for an employer’s negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention are allegations of fault within the meaning of the apportionment statute, and OCGA § 51-12-33 mandates that the jury be allowed to consider the fault of all persons who contributed to the alleged injuries of damages.” Id. Because of this, “[a]dherence to the plain and explicit terms of OCGA § 51-22-33 requires the elimination of the Respondeat Superior Rule.” Id. The Supreme Court of Georgia concluded that the foregoing reasons, we conclude that the Respondeat Superior Rule has been abrogated by OCGA § 51-12-33, and that the Court of Appeals erred in holding otherwise. Id. at 482.
Following this ruling, the Georgia Court of Appeals evaluated an appeal of a partial summary judgment in which Defendant relied exclusively on the Respondeat Superior Rule. Terry v. Old Hat Chimney, LLC., 862 S.E.2d 562 (2021). Citing Quynn, the Court reversed the trial court’s grant of partial summary judgment as it had relied “exclusively” on the Respondeat Superior Rule Id. at 563-64. The Georgia Court of Appeals reasoned, “the rule and the cases applying [Respondeat Superior Rule] are no longer good law.” Id. at 564. This begs the question, how does respondeat superior impact claims to be permitted and how best can a defendant entity navigate such claims.