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Tennessee Court of Appeals Reverses Lower Court’s Order That Granted Summary Judgment on Issue of Vicarious Liability in Fatal Car Accident Case

In cases in which a negligent driver was acting in the course and scope of his or her employment at the time of a serious East Tennessee car accident or fatal crash, the driver’s employer can be held vicariously liable for the harm that befell the accident victim. This is important because the employer is likely to have more financial resources (including a car accident liability insurance policy with considerably higher limits) than the at-fault motorist.

Obviously, the employer has an incentive to deny that the worker was “on the clock,” so to speak. However, simply denying the obvious will not go very far in avoiding a finding of liability for the employer.

In a recent case, both the employer and the employee (a father and son) denied that the employee was still acting on behalf of the employer when he crashed the employer’s car and killed a woman. Instead, they argued that the employee had planned to stop off and pick up a pizza, thereby deviating from his task and interrupting the chain of events that would have resulted in a finding of vicarious liability. Fortunately for the woman’ surviving spouse, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s summary judgment order and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in a case recently considered by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville was the surviving spouse of a woman who passed away in a motor vehicle accident in 2015. The plaintiff was also the administrator of the accident victim’s estate. He filed suit against the defendants, the driver of the at-fault vehicle and the owner of the vehicle, asserting claims for wrongful death and loss of consortium. The owner of the vehicle was the father and employer of the driver. The defendants resisted the plaintiff’s vicarious liability claims against the father, asserting that, although the son had taken the father’s vehicle to run a business errand (to pick up a check) on the day in question, the son was no longer “on duty” at the time of the crash. In support of this contention, the son claimed that he had decided to pick up a pizza to take home to eat with his wife, rather than return to his place of employment with the check that he had picked up earlier in the day.

The Circuit Court for Rutherford County granted summary judgment to the father based on the affidavits and deposition testimony of the father and son on the issue of whether the son was acting in the course and scope of his employment when the crash occurred. The plaintiff appealed, seeking appellate review of the trial court’s order granting summary judgment.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

The appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings. At the hearing on summary judgment in the court below, the plaintiff argued that the evidence relied upon by the father, namely his testimony and that of his son, was insufficient to refute the prima facie evidence of vicarious liability created by Tenn. Code. Ann. ยงยง 50-10-311 and -312 insomuch as both the father and the son were interested witnesses. (The statute upon which the plaintiff relied stated that proof of ownership of a vehicle was prima facie evidence that the vehicle was being operated by the owner’s servant (here, the son) within the course and scope of the employment relationship.)

Although the trial court rejected this argument, the court of appeals agreed that resolution of this disputed issue of material fact was best left to the jury, rather than to pre-trial resolution on summary judgment. In so holding, the court acknowledged that the credibility of both the father and the son could be called into question given the circumstances of the case.

Discuss Your Car Accident Case With an Attorney

Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult things that a family can experience. Having to fight an at-fault party’s insurance company for a fair settlement or judgment of a wrongful death claim can compound the loss, but having an effective and hard-working legal advocate on your side can help. To schedule a free consultation to discuss your personal injury or wrongful death case with a seasoned attorney, call the Hartsoe Law Firm at 865-524-5657 today.

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