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California employer liable for employee driving company vehicle while using vehicle for personal use (Part 1)

A recent California court decision raises important issues for employers who allow their employee to use company vehicles for personal reasons. In Moreno v. Visser Ranch, Inc., an employer allowed its employee to use a truck it owned and insured for both business and personal travel. Employee Ray Moreno was required to be on call 24/7 to respond immediately to cell phone calls and maintenance needed at all times at the ranches, farms and dairies operated by the employer.

Mr. Moreno was driving this truck with his passenger son when the truck was involved in a single-vehicle, rollover mishap. They were returning from a family gathering to their home on the employer's premises, where the son was headed to work there.

Mr. Moreno's son sued his father's employer Visser Ranch and others for his injuries based on the doctrine of respondeat superior, under which an employer can be vicariously liable for injuries its employee caused when acting in the scope and course of employment. The trial court denied the son's claims and granted summary judgment, holding that because his father (the employee) was on the way back from a private activity, he was not acting in the scope of his employment when the truck rolled over.

The appellate court disagreed. It found that that questions of fact remained that precluded judgment without trial. For example, evidence was conflicting on whether the employer mandated that Mr. Moreno use the company truck "at all times." The court felt that a "reasonable trier of fact" could conclude that Mr. Moreno was acting within the scope of his job at the time of the accident.

Respondeat superior

The opinion provides a good overview of the state-law doctrine of "respondeat superior," which says that an employer is legally responsible for negligence committed by its employee within the scope of employment. The California Supreme Court adopted the "enterprise theory" as support for respondeat superior liability, meaning that public policy supports assigning to the employer that owns the enterprise liability and assumption of risk for harm caused by employees during the scope of the work of the enterprise.

In Part 2 of this post, we will continue to discuss the Moreno court's decision on this important topic.

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