HR Management & Compliance

Employer Liability: New Case Examines When You Can Be on the Hook for Accidents Occurring During an Employee’s Commute; Prevention Steps

Minimed Inc., based in Northridge, hired a pest control company to spray pesticide overnight to eliminate fleas at the office. When clerical employee Irma Hernandez arrived at work the next morning, she noticed a Raid-like smell—and within a few hours she had a headache, nausea, and tightness in her chest. Hernandez told her supervisors she felt ill from the pesticide and wanted to go home.

The supervisors first asked her if she wanted to see the company doctor. When Hernandez said no, they asked her if she was sure she could drive home. She assured them she could and left work. On her way home, Hernandez rear-ended a car Barbara Bussard was driving. Hernandez told the officer at the scene she felt light-headed and dizzy before the accident.

400+ pages of state-specific, easy-read reference materials at your fingertips—fully updated! Check out the Guide to Employment Law for California Employers and get up to speed on everything you need to know.

Employer Gets Sued

Bussard sued Minimed for the damages to her car and her personal injuries. She claimed Minimed was liable for the accident because Hernandez was within the scope of her employment when she drove home ill from the pesticide exposure at work.

Minimed tried to get the case thrown out, pointing to the long-established “going-and-coming rule” that employers aren’t liable for injuries caused by employees while they are on their way to and from work.

Court Holds Employer Liable

But a California Court of Appeal sided with Bussard. Under an exception to the going-and-coming rule, the court explained, an employer can be held liable if the employee endangers someone because of a risk related to work, provided that the employer could have foreseen the risk. And here, said the court, Minimed should have foreseen that Hernandez was unfit to drive after breathing pesticide fumes for several hours and that there was a risk of an auto accident.

The court rejected Minimed’s contention it still shouldn’t be liable to Bussard because it wasn’t negligent in spraying the pesticides and Hernandez told her supervisors she was OK to drive. The court said Minimed’s lack of negligence was irrelevant if the accident was connected to the work-related event.

Prevention Steps

To avoid a similar lawsuit, if an employee falls ill from a chemical in the building or other work-related exposure, insist the person take transportation you provide for them, such as a cab or a ride from a co-worker or supervisor.

Also, although this case dealt with the limited situation in which a sick employee causes an accident, the court noted that the same exception to the going-and-coming rule has applied when employees caused auto accidents after leaving work-related events intoxicated. Your best protection against liability is to avoid serving alcoholic beverages at work events and to remind managers not to do so at department gatherings.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *