What is Vicarious Liability and Why Does It Matter?

On Behalf of | Jul 17, 2020 | Car Accidents, Injuries

Frequently, the tortfeasor (negligent driver) is not the only party who is responsible for damages in a vehicle collision claim. A third party, like an employer or alcohol provider, often has a chance to stop car crashes before they start. As a result, financial responsibility falls on these third parties.

Third party liability is important because Kentucky has one of the lowest auto insurance minimum coverage requirements in the country. So, in a catastrophic wreck, like a wrongful death claim, the individual tortfeasor might not have enough insurance coverage to provide fair compensation. Vicarious liability gives these victims an additional source of compensation.

So, vicarious liability could matter a lot in your vehicle collision claim. Some of the more common theories are outlined below.

Employer Liability

The captain of a ship is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the crew. In the same way, employers are responsible for the negligence of their employees. This legal doctrine is called respondeat superior (“let the master answer”). It has three basic elements:

  • Employee: For tax reasons, workers who receive W-2 wages are employees. For negligence purposes, any worker the employer controls in any meaningful way is an employee.
  • Scope of Employment: Kentucky law also defines this respondeat superior element in broad, victim-friendly terms. Typically, any act which benefits the employer in any way is within the scope of employment.
  • Foreseeability: This word does not mean “inevitable” or even “likely.” Instead, if a car crash was a possible result of the employer/employee relationship, the wreck was probably foreseeable.

Truck accidents are a good illustration of how the respondeat superior rule works in court. Most truck drivers are technically independent contractors or owner-operators. But the transportation or shipping company controls things like load carried and route travelled. As for the scope of employment, driving an empty rig is within the scope of the employment. The employer benefits by having the rig in the right place at the right time.

Except in extreme cases, vehicle collisions are always a foreseeable result of vehicle travel. If a worker broke into the lot, stole a truck, and caused a crash, that crash would not be foreseeable.

Alcohol Provider Liability

This substance causes about a third of the vehicle collisions in Kentucky. Alcohol slows motor skills and impedes judgement ability. These impairing effects begin after the first drink.

Because alcohol is so dangerous, basic negligence law is not enough to protect people. So, Kentucky has a dram shop law. Section 413.241(2) of Kentucky’s Revised Statutes holds restaurants, bars, clubs, and other commercial alcohol providers liable for vehicle collision damages if they sell alcohol to:

  • Any Minor: Establishments which furnish alcohol to minors are usually liable for car crash damages as a matter of law. Traditional defenses, like “s/he looked older,” usually do not hold up in court.
  • Intoxicated Adult: Any alcohol sale is illegal if “a reasonable person under the same or similar circumstances should know that the person served is already intoxicated at the time of serving.” Circumstantial evidence of intoxication includes odor of alcohol, bloodshot eyes, and unsteady balance.

The foreseeability rule also applies in dram shop claims. This element is often difficult to establish if the tortfeasor bought packaged alcohol, like a beer, at a grocery or other store. Generally, however, it is foreseeable that a person will have a few sips on the way home.

Owner Liability

The negligent entrustment rule almost always applies if the tortfeasor was under 18. Since minors cannot own vehicles or other property, the cars they drive are usually someone else’s property. This rule applies in many other situations as well. Owners routinely loan their vehicles to other people (e.g. a husband driving his wife’s car).

Generally, owners are vicariously liable for damages if they knowingly allow incompetent operators to driver their motor vehicles. Evidence of incompetency includes, in approximately descending order:

  • No drivers’ license,
  • Violating a license restriction, like driving without required eyeglasses,
  • Safety suspended drivers’ license,
  • Previous safety suspension, and
  • Multiple at-fault collisions or near-miss accidents.

The further one goes down this list, the more difficult it becomes to prove knowledge. The victim/plaintiff must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not), that the owner knew the driver was incompetent.

Commercial negligent entrustment cases, like U-Haul truck rental crashes, work differently, because of the Graves Amendment.

Employers and other third parties are often financially responsible for car wreck damages. For a free consultation with an experienced car accident lawyer in Lexington, contact the Goode Law Office, PLLC. We routinely handle matters in Fayette County and nearby jurisdictions.