Transportation Alert: Respondeat Superior and the Outer Limits of the Incidental Benefit Exception

In Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. v. Department of Transportation, the California Court of Appeal (Fifth Appellate District) held that an employer is not liable for an automobile accident where the employee was driving a company-owned truck on a purely personal errand.

The Halliburton case involved Troy Martinez, a Halliburton employee, who lived in Caliente, California and worked on an oil rig off the shore of Seal Beach. Halliburton assigned a company truck to Mr. Martinez for his daily commute. After Mr. Martinez’s shift ended on September 13, 2009, he drove the company truck 140 miles to Bakersfield to meet his wife at a car dealership to purchase her a vehicle. Bakersfield is approximately 45 to 50 miles from Mr. Martinez’s home. While crossing the Grapevine on his way back to Seal Beach for his next shift, he was in a traffic accident.

Six individuals who were allegedly injured in the accident sued Halliburton on theories of respondeat superior, negligent supervision, and negligent entrustment. Halliburton argued that it could not be held liable on any of the three theories because Mr. Martinez was not acting within the course and scope of his employment when the incident occurred. The trial court agreed, and the plaintiffs appealed.

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is liable for the torts of [its] employees committed within the scope of their employment. (Halliburton at 5, citing Ducey v. Argo Sales Co. (1979) 25 Cal.3d 707, 721-22.) The well-established “going and coming rule” provides that an employee’s travels to and from work are generally not within the course and scope of employment, such that the employer cannot be held liable for torts that occur during that time.  An exception to the “going and coming” rule arises where an employee’s travel to and from work yields an incidental benefit on his employer.

However, the Halliburton Court explained that the incidental benefit exception does not apply in two instances. First, when an employee’s trip deviate[s] substantially from a direct commute in order to carry out his own personal business. Whether an employee’s departure is substantial – thus falling outside the scope of employment – turns on whether the employee’s conduct is foreseeable. Second, when the employee’s trip serves only the employee’s personal interest. The Court found that Mr. Martinez’s trip to Bakersfield was a trip such as this.

The plaintiffs argued that Halliburton benefitted from Mr. Martinez’s use of a company-owned vehicle to travel to and from work. However, the court ruled that regardless of any general benefit Halliburton may have received by assigning Mr. Martinez a company truck, it received no benefit from Mr. Martinez’s trip to Bakersfield on September 13, 2009.

The Court found that Mr. Martinez’s trip was purely personal in nature because he went to meet his wife to purchase a car at a location 140 miles from his assignment in Seal Beach. Although he was designated as on-call 24 hours, seven days a week, Mr. Martinez did not obtain authorization from, let alone inform, his supervisor that he was going to Bakersfield.

The Court declined to adopt plaintiffs’ argument that Mr. Martinez’s trip to Bakersfield was part of his commute, thus distinguishing it from the recent decision in Moradi v. Marsh USA, Inc. There, the California Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District) held an employer could be liable for an accident caused by an employee after the workday was over and the employee was running personal errands on her way home. The Moradi Court held it was foreseeable that an employee would make stops on her commute home from work. Halliburton is distinguishable because Mr. Martinez never went home. Rather, he met his wife in Bakersfield, which was approximately 50 miles from their home. The mere fact that Mr. Martinez was driving a Halliburton truck on a purely personal trip was not sufficient make Halliburton liable.

The Court affirmed the lower court’s finding that Mr. Martinez was not acting within the scope of his employment. Accordingly, Halliburton could not be held liable on the basis of respondeat superior.

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October 8, 2013