When is an Employer Liable for an Employee's Motor Vehicle Accident

Sometimes the driver who causes a motor vehicle accident will be working at the time of the accident. For example, the driver may be making deliveries using a company vehicle or in the driver's personal vehicle.

When the person who causes a motor vehicle accident is acting within the course and scope of employment or is driving a company vehicle, a person injured as a result of the accident may be able to recover damages not only from the negligent driver, but also from the employer.

Owner Liability

Owner liability statutes provide that the if the owner of a vehicle allows somebody to drive their vehicle, the owner is liable for injuries caused by that person's negligent operation of the vehicle. Owner liability laws apply to employer vehicles, and may thus make an employer liable for injuries caused by an employee who is driving a work vehicle.

Negligent Hiring and Retention

When hiring an employee who will be operating motor vehicles while on the job, employers should exercise due care to only hire employees who are sufficiently skilled at driving to conduct those vehicles in a safe and appropriate manner.

Proper hiring practices will normally include checking a prospective employee's driving record, and making sure that the employee has a valid driver's license with all appropriate endorsements.

After a driver has been hired, if the employer learns information that relates to the driver's ability to safely conduct a vehicle, the employer may have a duty to suspend the employee's driving duties until the safety concerns have been resolved. Safety concerns may be raised by such information as:

  • Poor Driving Habits: The employer learns of unsafe driving activity by the employer, including the accumulation of tickets for moving violations;

  • Unsafe Conduct: The employer learns of conduct by the employee that, although perhaps not directly involving the operation of a vehicle, raises concern about the employee's ability to safely operate a vehicle. For example, an employee may be discovered to be drinking alcohol while at work.

Negligent Training

An employer may be liable for an injury caused by an employee if it is successfully argued that the employee was not properly trained to safely perform services for the employer.

Within the context of motor vehicle accidents, for example:

  • It might be alleged that the employee was not properly trained to safely operate a specialized vehicle within the course of employment, such as a large delivery vehicle, bus or commercial hauler.
  • It might be argued that the employee was not properly trained in balancing the vehicle's load, such that the vehicle as loaded by the employee was unsafe to operate, resulting in a loss of control or accident.
  • It might also be argued that the employee was not instructed about basic safety rules, such as an employer's prohibition on cell phone use while driving or that employees are never to speed while driving a vehicle for work, and that the failure to provide that training was a proximate cause of the injury.

Negligent Supervision

Employer have a general duty to supervise their employee. If an employee fails to exercise adequate supervision over an employee, the employer can potentially be held liable for injuries that result from that failure.

Although it may be difficult to show a duty to supervise within the context of a motor vehicle accident, cases may arise in which a claim of negligent supervision can be raised against an employer.

Vicarious Liability

Employers can typically be held jointly and severally liable for the negligent acts of their employees committed during the course and scope of employment, under the doctrine of respondeat superior (a Latin term meaning "a superior must answer"). Under this doctrine, a master (or employer) is required to answer for certain acts of his servant (employee), and may be responsible for the legal consequences of the employee's negligent acts.

Where the employer is a governmental entity, sovereign immunity may limit an injured person's remedies against the government employer. The scope of government immunity varies by state..

Unsafe Employer Policies

An employer may have policies that increase the risk of harm to motorists, and thus may render the employer liable for automobile accidents that result from those policies. For example, an employer that puts time limits on deliveries, or imposes penalties upon drivers who fail to meet time restrictions, may be found to be encouraging speeding and other unsafe driving conduct by employees.

An employer that requires employees to answer pagers or phone calls within minutes of contact may be found to be encouraging drivers to take or place cellular phone calls while operating their vehicles. If the employer has reason to know, or reasonably should understand, that its policies will create dangers to other motorists and pedestrians, the employer should modify its policy lest it be held liable for an accident.

Any person injured by a delivery vehicle, or in accident in which the driver who causes the accident is on the job, should consult a personal injury lawyer for an analysis of the employer's liability.

Copyright © 2006 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.