Vicarious vs. Direct Liability: Holding Georgia Employers Accountable for their Employees’ Negligence

When a car accident occurs, there may be more than one party who is liable for the victim’s injuries. For example, if the negligent driver was acting on behalf of an employer, the latter can be sued under a number of legal theories. Depending on the specific facts of the case–as well as the defendant employer’s response to the lawsuit–some of these theories may be unavailable to the victim.

Terry v. Old Hat Chimney, LLC

Take this recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Terry v. Old Hat Chimney, LLC. This case began with a rear-end auto accident that took place in July 2016. The plaintiff claims the other driver, one of the defendants, was liable for his injuries arising from said accident.

At the time, the defendant was driving a vehicle owned by his employer. The plaintiff therefore also named the employer as a defendant. The plaintiff’s lawsuit alleged two theories of liability against the employer: First, the employer was “vicariously liable” for its employee’s negligence; and second, the employer was “directly liable” for its negligence in the “hiring, training, and supervising” of its driver.

The employer admitted the driver was its employee. The employer further conceded that at the time of the accident, the driver was acting “within the scope of his employment.” That is to say, the employer agreed the plaintiff had presented a valid claim for vicarious liability. Given that, the employer said the plaintiff should not be permitted to also present his direct liability claim at trial.

The trial judge agreed and granted the defense summary judgment on that issue. The Court of Appeals subsequently rejected the plaintiff’s request to reinstate the claim. In a 2017 decision, Hospital Authority of Valdosta/Lowndes v. Fender, the appeals court rejected a similar argument. The court held in that case that “if a defendant employer concedes it will be vicariously liable … if its employee is found negligent, the employer is entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims for negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention.”

There is an exception to this rule if the plaintiff also seeks punitive damages. In that scenario, the plaintiff can separately raise direct liability. In the present lawsuit, the plaintiff did not seek punitive damages, so the trial court properly barred his claim for direct liability.

The plaintiff urged the Court of Appeals to reconsider and overrule its 2017 decision, arguing it violated his right to have a jury apportion fault for the accident. But the appeals court said it considered and rejected this exact same argument in its prior decision. While the Georgia Supreme Court initially agreed to review the 2017 ruling itself, the appeal was later abandoned by the parties to that case. So the Court of Appeals’ decision remains binding precedent in Georgia.