Many auto accidents are caused by drivers operating vehicles on behalf of their employers. When this happens, the employer is typically liable for the employee’s negligence under a legal principle known as “respondeat superior.” If the employer admits respondeat superior applies, then the injured victims are normally barred from bringing separate claims against the employer for “negligent hiring, hiring, retention, supervision, training, and entrustment.”
There is an exception to this rule, however, if the plaintiff seeks punitive damages arising from the accident. Again, punitive damages are not typically awarded in personal injury cases. In this context, punitive damages are only available if the plaintiff can prove the defendant employer itself was negligent to the point where it engaged in “willful misconduct, malice, [or] fraud.”
Kraese v. Jialiang
A recent decision from a federal judge in Savannah, Kraese v. Jialiang, illustrates the type of cases where this punitive damages argument may be available. This still-pending personal injury lawsuit was the result of a bus accident. The plaintiff was a passenger on the bus when it collided with another vehicle. The defendants are the bus driver and his employer, the company that operated the bus.
The plaintiff has alleged the employer was negligent in its “hiring, retention, and supervision” of the bus driver. Before the trial court, the plaintiff argued that the employer “did not investigate” the driver’s “driving history or other qualifications to operate a commercial passenger bus before hiring him.” Nor did the employer adequately “train or supervise” the driver in the “operation of the commercial passenger bus.” Indeed, the plaintiff said the employer’s owner never bothered to review the driver’s employment application because he “does not read English and did not have another employee explain the application to him.”
In response, the employer argued that there was no evidence that it was aware the driver had an “unsafe” record. While the owner could not read English, he still “verified the contents of [the driver’s] employment application through alternative means.” In any event, the employer insisted that the plaintiff had not pled a valid claim for punitive damages, without which there was no basis for his negligent hiring and supervision claims.
The judge disagreed. He said at this stage of the case there was evidence that the employer “completely failed to review” the driver’s record before hiring him, and thereafter failed to observe or supervise him. By the owner’s own admission, the employer “did not review” several key documents submitted by the driver during the hiring process. This testimony alone was sufficient to create “an issue of fact as to whether [the employer] consciously disregarded its duty” to properly investigate its potential drivers.
Although the judge did not rule on the merits of the case, he did deny the defense’s motion for summary judgment on the punitive damages issue. He said a jury could decide for itself whether or not the employer’s actions constituted “negligent hiring, retention, and supervision.”