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Employer liability in California for car accidents caused by employees

When a motor vehicle accident causes serious injury, one of the first things that must be determined is who was at fault. If it can be shown that the accident was caused by negligence, injured victims can recover financial compensation for losses including medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering. Of course, the most obvious place to start is with the driver who caused the car accident. However, legal responsibility may also lie with other parties who were not physically present at the accident scene. For example, if the driver who caused the accident was doing his or her job when the crash occurred, the driver’s employer may also be held liable for damages. The rule that allows employer liability is called “respondeat superior,” also known as “vicarious liability.” It applies when an employee negligently injured a third party while acting in the scope of his or her employment. In California, courts use a three-part test to determine whether vicarious liability applies. An employee will be deemed to have been acting in the scope of his or her employment if the following elements are met:

  • The accident occurred within the time and space limits authorized as part of the employee’s job
  • At the time of the accident, the employee was engaged – at least in part – in work-related activities
  • The act that caused the accident was one that the employee had been hired to perform

Whether vicarious liability applies depends on the unique circumstance of the motor vehicle accident. For example, the employer might be liable if the employee was on a delivery run or was heading out to a work-related meeting. The employer would likely not be liable if the employee was running personal errand during a break.

Independent contractors and the issue of tow truck drivers

Generally speaking, vicarious liability applies only to the employer-employee relationship. It is usually not applicable when a car accident is caused by an independent contractor.

This is not always true, though. In a recent case, the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles held that AAA can be held liable for accidents caused by tow truck drivers operating on its behalf.

In the case, AAA claimed that it should not have legal liability because its tow truck drivers are independent contractors. The appeals court disagreed, however, pointing to the fact that AAA has very extensive control over the drivers’ behavior. For example, it trains the drivers, dispatches them, controls their physical appearance and requests that they identify themselves as acting on behalf of AAA.

The ruling makes California one of only a few jurisdictions to allow employer liability for accidents caused by negligent AAA tow truck drivers.

The ruling also highlights just how complicated vicarious liability issues can be. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident caused by someone who might have been doing their job at the time of the crash, it is important to consult with an experienced California personal injury attorney. The attorney will be able to evaluate the circumstances of the case to determine who can be held liable.

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