California HR, Uncategorized

Is California Employer Liable for Motorist’s Carpooling Injury?

The California Court of Appeal recently considered whether an employer may be held liable for a third party’s injuries resulting from an auto accident caused by an employee who was carpooling with his supervisor and coworkers from the jobsite after the end of their shift.

In analyzing the issue, the court emphasized that the employer didn’t require employees to participate in a carpool, and the supervisor’s requests for rides were personal in nature and couldn’t be imputed to the employer.

Accident Occurs During Drive from Hotel to Oil Rig

Helmerich & Payne International Drilling Company (H&P) operates drilling rigs in Kern County. Each rig has two crews working 12 hours per day for 14 days, followed by 14 days off. The 14-day period of work is called a “hitch.” H&P provides employees who live more than 2 hours away from the rig location a shared room at a Best Western Heritage Inn. Employees are responsible for arranging and paying for their transportation to and from the hotel and the jobsite.

The nightshift crew for one of the drilling rigs included Luis Mooney, a floor hand, and Mark Stewart, a motorman. Their supervisor was the driller, Ruben Ibarra. Stewart and Ibarra didn’t live in the area and stayed at the Best Western during their hitch. Stewart didn’t have a valid driver’s license.

Mooney lived in Bakersfield, and his commute from his home to the jobsite took him by the Best Western. He gave Ibarra and Stewart rides to and from the drill site in his personal vehicle. He never asked Ibarra or Stewart to reimburse him for the rides. H&P never reimbursed Mooney, Ibarra, or Stewart for the out-of-pocket cost of traveling to and from the oil rig, nor did the company pay them for their travel time. Ibarra asked for rides from Mooney so he could save the personal expense of a taxi ride to and from the worksite.

After the end of their shift on December 12, 2011, Mooney gave Ibarra and Stewart a ride to the hotel on his way home. At approximately 6:30 a.m., Mooney’s pickup truck collided with a pickup truck driven by Brent Pierson. The drivers and passengers of both vehicles were taken to Kern Medical Center by ambulance.

Injured Driver Sues H&P and Employee for Personal Injury

Pierson and his wife sued H&P and Mooney for his personal injuries. In November 2013, H&P asked the court to dismiss the complaint against it because the accident occurred when Mooney was driving home from work, not while he was in the course or scope of his employment.

The trial court dismissed the complaint against H&P because (1) the employees were responsible for arranging and paying for their transportation from the employer-provided hotel to the jobsite, (2) the employer didn’t require employees to carpool or rideshare, and (3) the employer didn’t derive an incidental benefit from its employees’ ridesharing arrangements. Pierson appealed.

Going and Coming Rule and Exceptions

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is liable for torts (wrongful acts) committed by its employees within the scope of their employment. However, under the “going and coming rule,” employees are not acting within the scope of their employment while they’re going to or coming from the workplace.

The rationale for the rule is that the employment relationship is suspended from the time an employee leaves work until he or she returns because employees generally render no service to the employer while they’re traveling. There are some exceptions to that general rule, including the required-vehicle exception, the incidental benefit exception, and the special errand exception.

Under the required-vehicle exception, if an employer requires an employee to furnish a vehicle as an express or implied condition of employment, the employee will be in the scope of his employment while he’s commuting to and from the place of his employment.

Pierson argued that a jury could find that H&P implicitly required Mooney to use his vehicle as part of his job because (1) Ibarra was Mooney’s supervisor when he asked him for rides to and from the hotel and (2) crews sometimes needed to be transported during a shift when the drilling rig was moved to a new site.

The appellate court recognized that a supervisor’s request for a ride to and from work, by itself, might support an inference that the request was attributable to H&P. However, the court found that inference wasn’t reasonable in this case because of the following undisputed facts:

  1. Crew members, not H&P, were responsible for arranging their transportation to and from work.
  2. Providing transportation to the supervisor or other crew members was not a condition of Mooney’s employment.
  3. There would have been no repercussion to Mooney’s job status if he didn’t provide Ibarra with a ride.

 

The fact that crew members occasionally needed to be transported when the drilling rig was moved to a new site during the shift was irrelevant because the accident didn’t occur during a rig move, and rig moves seldom happen. Furthermore, as we’ve already noted, Mooney wasn’t required to transport others as part of his job.

Under the incidental benefit exception, the employee’s drive to and from work may be within the scope of his employment if the use of his vehicle provides some direct or incidental benefit to the employer. The term “incidental benefit” means a benefit that is “not common to commute trips by ordinary members of the [workforce].”

Accordingly, an employee who arrives at work on time doesn’t provide an incidental benefit to the employer. The appellate court found that Pierson failed to establish that H&P received a recognized benefit based on Mooney providing rides to crew members.

The special errand exception provides that an employee is considered within the scope of his employment when he’s coming from or returning to his home while he’s on a special errand either as part of his regular duties or as part of a specific order or request by the employer.

Pierson argued that Ibarra’s requests for rides from Mooney should be imputed to H&P based on the following facts:

  1. Ibarra’s role as Mooney’s supervisor;
  2. Ibarra’s lack of personal transportation and his routine requests for rides from crew members;
  3. Ibarra’s inability to reciprocate by providing rides to others;
  4. The many times Mooney gave Ibarra a ride to and from the jobsite;
  5. Mooney’s testimony that Ibarra would tell him that he wanted to be picked up and taken somewhere and Mooney would do it; and
  6. Ibarra’s authority as a supervisor to recommend Mooney’s termination.

 

Despite that evidence, the appellate court found that in light of H&P’s actions making employees responsible for their own transportation, it was unreasonable to infer that the company’s conduct caused crew members to believe that Ibarra’s requests for rides were made on its behalf. The appellate court therefore affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the complaint against H&P. Pierson v. Helmerich & Payne etc. Drilling (California Court of Appeal, 5th Appellate District, 10/6/16, published 10/25/16)

Bottom Line

Under the holding in this case, an employer is not responsible for a third party’s injuries resulting from an accident that occurs when an employee is voluntarily driving a carpool from the worksite after the end of the shift and the employer hasn’t expressly or implicitly required the employee to provide transportation to others. The ruling would’ve been different if there was any evidence that the employer required or organized the carpool.

The result also might have been different if the issue was workers’ compensation coverage for the employee’s injuries rather than the employer’s tort liability for injuries to a third party caused by the employee. Workers’ comp cases take a more expansive view of the test for “scope of employment” than tort cases because the policies underlying the workers’ comp statute favor granting employees coverage.

Cathleen S. Yonahara, an editor of California Employment Law Letter, can be reached at Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP in San Francisco, yonahara@freelandlaw.com.