A company rents a car for an employee to use for work purposes. The husband drives it. He’s done it a few times, and the company never had a problem with it. In fact, one supervisor conceded his wife drove the company rental regularly. The husband wrecks. People are hurt. Is the employer liable?
It’s a question for a jury to decide, according to Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, which recently reversed a summary judgement in favor of the employer in Adams v. Bell Partners Inc.
Naples car accident attorneys note the reverse-and-remand order was based on two grounds:
- There were genuine issues of material fact as to whether the company authorized the husband’s use of the vehicle, despite policy to the contrary, which could make the employer considered a “bailee.”
- Part of the summary judgment was based on a memorandum filed three days prior to the hearing on the summary judgment, in conflict with Florida Rules of Civil Procedure that require such documents be filed 20 days in advance of consideration.
The employer in question is a large nursing home network that operates throughout the Southeastern U.S., with numerous locations in Florida. The employee offers training to those locations, and is required to travel extensively for her job. Sometimes, the worker was reimbursed for her gasoline costs, and other times, the company rented a vehicle for her.
She would later testify that there had been numerous occasions when her husband had driven the company rental car without opposition from her employer. While she understood the vehicle was only to be used for work and work-related purposes, the company hadn’t objected when her husband drove the vehicle out-of-state with her for the funeral of a colleague. Likewise, her supervisor didn’t offer any objection when her husband drove from their home to Daytona Beach, so that she could work on the way.
On this occasion, the employee rented the vehicle using her company card so that she could use the vehicle the following Monday. On Sunday, however, her husband crashed the vehicle. When informed of the accident, the supervisor reportedly assured her it was fine, and to write a statement to Visa indicating that the rental car was for business purposes. She was never reprimanded by her employer.
But then the two people injured in the crash sued the company for vicarious liability. The company argued that it never consented to the husband’s use of the vehicle, and further had a policy barring the use of company rental cars for non-business use. The policy specifically states that employees are not to allow spouses, family members or anyone else drive company-rented cars.
Three days prior to the summary judgment hearing, the defendant filed a memorandum in which, for the first time, the firm argued that it lacked an identifiable property interest in the vehicle under bailment, and that it didn’t have any control over the vehicle at the time of the crash.
It was partially on this grounds that the district court granted the defense summary judgment.
The injured parties appealed.
Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine holds that a third-party can be held liable if/when he or she entrusts a motor vehicle to someone who then operates it negligently and causes damage. The employer here didn’t own the car, the rental company did. But rental companies can generally no longer be sued for the negligent driving of customers. So the question is what control did the company have?
In previous cases (specifically the 1984 ruling in Brown v. Goldberg ) it’s been established that a person for whose benefit a vehicle is rented and who pays the expense thereof can be held the bailee (responsible party) for the vehicle.
One defense to this is conversion or theft, which is part of what the company argued in its supplemental filing.
However, the question of whether the company had control of the vehicle is not a matter of law, but rather a determination of fact that must be weighed by a jury.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Adams v. Bell Partners Inc. , April 23, 2014, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals
More Blog Entries:
Injuries Occurred While Leaving Work May Still be Compensable, May 1, 2014, Naples Car Accident Lawyer Blog