Attorney Monty L. Cain of Cain Law Office recently won an interlocutory appeal in the Supreme Court of Oklahoma that will allow trucking companies to be held liable in separate, distinct legal claims when both their employee’s negligence and their own negligence contributes to trucking accidents.
The case is Fox v. Mize (2018 OK 75). The Supreme Court issued the unanimous decision on September 18, 2018. Mr. Cain represents the plaintiff in the case along with attorney Michael M. Blue of Blue Law.
“This is a major victory for victims of semi-truck accident and injury cases,” Mr. Cain said. “Commercial motor carriers have a duty under federal regulations to qualify and hire competent drivers that follow the regulations. This case will allow plaintiffs to hold trucking companies accountable when they fail to meet that duty, and in turn, it will make our roads safer.”
Lawsuit Alleges Employer Negligence Under Two Different Theories
The plaintiff is the personal representative of the estate of a motorcyclist who was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer driver in July 2015 in Norman. After the crash, the driver underwent a blood test. The test revealed that the driver had been under the influence of a prescription drug which Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) banned at the time of the crash.
In a lawsuit filed in Cleveland County District Court, the plaintiff alleged that that the driver’s employer could be held liable under a respondeat superior theory of liability. Under this theory, an employer can be liable for the negligent acts of its employees if the negligence occurs when the employee is acting “in the course and scope” of his or her employment.
The plaintiff also asserted a direct negligence claims against the employer, or claims based on the employer’s own negligence. The lawsuit alleged that the employer knew or should have known that the driver was under the influence of the banned prescription drug. It claimed that the employer should be liable for negligent hiring, training and retention of the driver and for negligent entrustment of a vehicle to the driver.
Court Rules that Negligent Entrustment Can Go Forward
At the District Court level, the employer admitted that the driver had been acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the crash, which could establish the employer’s liability under a respondeat superior theory. However, the employer filed a motion to dismiss the direct negligence claims.
The District Court dismissed the negligent hiring, training and retention claim. Yet, it allowed the negligent entrustment claim to go forward. The employer appealed and sought the Supreme Court’s review of that decision.
The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the separate negligent entrustment claim could be brought against the employer even though it had admitted that the driver was acting in the course and scope of his employment when the crash occurred. The issue has generated inconsistent rulings in state and federal courts in Oklahoma in recent years in similar cases.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court provided clarity and held that a direct action claim against an employer for negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle can be maintained even when the employer admits the employer is vicarious responsible for its employees acts or omissions through the theory of respondeat superior liability. The reason: The claims were based on separate and distinct acts – one claim was based on the driver’s actions, while the other was based on the company’s actions.
“Employers employing unfit and unqualified drivers cannot insulate themselves from a negligent entrustment claim simply by stipulating that the employee driver was acting in the course and scope of employment,” Justice Noma V. Gurich wrote for the Court.
“The Plaintiff has the right to determine the facts she will allege and the claims she will pursue. [The company] does not get to make that choice for her by stipulating that its employee was in the course and scope of employment at the time of the accident.”
As result of this decision, a plaintiff may pursue punitive damages against the employer under either theory – respondeat superior and negligent entrustment. According to the Supreme Court, punitive damages remain an evidentiary issue that the District Court would rule upon if and when the case went to trial.
The Supreme Court did not determine in this case whether a negligent hiring, training and retention claim against an employer should be treated any differently than a negligent entrustment claim. These issues were not appealed. However, the Supreme Court did state Jordan v. Cates (1997 OK 9), the case cited by many trucking companies to support their argument they should not be liable for direct action claims was limited to the facts of case.
Jordan v. Cates involved a convenience store clerk with a known violent past who assaulted a customer. Also, the Court stated in a footnote that the Jordan decision “is limited to its facts.”
“Therefore, when given the opportunity we believe the Oklahoma Supreme Court will rule that direct actions for negligent hiring, training and retention are available in trucking cases in addition to negligent entrustment,” Mr. Cain said. As previously stated, this ruling will make the roads safer for all Oklahomans.