I recently became interested in accidents that happen when the at-fault driver is on-the-clock, or otherwise considered to be working. Can the employer be responsible? If so, under what conditions?

In tort law, the doctrine of respondeat superior states that an employer can be held liable for an employee’s actions performed in the course and scope of employment. This means that if you’re injured in a car accident and the person who hit you was doing something employment-related at the time, their employer may be responsible. Many people don’t think it is fair that an employee who is driving negligently can put their employer on the hook for damages they cause, but respondeat superior exists to protect individual employees from personal liability while working. The theory behind this is that if an employer is benefiting from an employee’s actions, that employer bears some responsibility for the outcome of those actions.

While there are some cases in which this doctrine would obviously apply (e.g. you get hit by a branded delivery vehicle), it can also apply in less obvious situations. For example, if you were on an employer-sponsored business trip to Denver and one night after leaving a restaurant, you cause a car accident. Chances are, your employer will be held liable for the damages you caused. This is because, under Colorado law, the “course and scope of employment” has a rather broad definition. To fall under the course and scope of employment, an employee’s actions must be “… caused by an intent to serve his employer’s interests and connected with his authorized acts.” Grease Monkey v. Montoya (Colo. 1995). This means that an employee does not necessarily have to be on the clock to be in the course and scope of employment. For respondeat superior to apply, an employee’s actions need only be “necessarily incidental” to their employment. Pham v. O.S.P Consultants, Inc. (Colo. 1999). Some necessarily incidental activities include staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and traveling to and from such places.

For obvious reasons, many employers confronted with liability under respondeat superior will attempt to avoid paying for any claims by arguing that their employee was not in the course and scope of employment when an accident occurred. They will often argue that the employee was engaged in personal activities, not fully comprehending how comprehensive respondeat superior is.

A recent example of an employer attempting to make this argument is Fowler v. United States. In 2011, Sean Garrick, an active duty U.S. Air Force officer, caused a motor vehicle accident, injuring a motorcyclist. The motorcyclist, Jason Fowler, filed suit against Mr. Garrick’s employer, the United States Government, under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which states that the government “is liable for the negligent acts of its employees committed in the scope and course of their employment.” Mr. Garrick was normally stationed at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, but was on temporary assignment at an Air Force installation near Boulder. He was working 12 hour shifts several days in a row, was required to arrive 30 minutes prior to the beginning of each shift, and rest for at least 8 hours before coming into work. These constraints made commuting from his home in Denver quite difficult, so Mr. Garrick was staying in a hotel near the Boulder facility. The Air Force paid for his lodging, as well as mileage to and from the Boulder installation. On June 4, 2006, the first day of his temporary assignment, Mr. Garrick’s supervisor authorized him to go on break for an hour-and-a-half. He decided to drive back to his hotel room to take a nap before returning for the rest of his shift. On the way to his hotel room, he caused the accident injuring Mr. Fowler.

The appellate court concluded that Mr. Garrick was indeed in the course and scope of employment when the accident occurred. They determined that although the Air Force did not strictly require Mr. Garrick to stay at a hotel near the Boulder facility, circumstances made doing so a practical necessity. This was supported by the fact that other Air Force employees on temporary assignment were also staying at the hotel and that the Air Force was paying for their lodging. Because Mr. Garrick’s job effectively required him to travel away from home, the court concluded that he qualified as a “traveling employee.” The court also determined that the Air Force likely benefited from allowing employees to go back to their hotel rooms and nap while on break. Indeed, the practice was encouraged at the Boulder facility to ensure that employees were well-rested and worked more efficiently during the remainder of their long shifts. Mr. Garrick intended to serve his employer’s interests and they not only authorized, but encouraged his actions. For these reasons, the court concluded that Mr. Garrick was in the course and scope of employment when the accident occurred, and the U.S. Government was liable for Mr. Fowler’s damages.

As Fowler demonstrates, whether an employer is liable for an employee’s actions is not always cut and dry. Every case is different and only a licensed attorney can determine if respondeat superior applies. If you were injured in a car accident and think the other driver may have been working at the time, contact an attorney you can trust right away to find out what your options are.

By: David Law