Articles Posted in Vicarious Liability

An issue that often arises when an employee harms another during the course of his job is whether the employer can be held vicariously liable for the employee’s act. Indeed, proving vicarious liability is often necessary for assuring that one can acquire full recovery for his injuries, since many employees are “judgment proof, ” meaning financially incapable of paying the opposing party’s judgment. Given the importance of vicarious liability, many plaintiffs attempt to stretch the meaning of employer. For instance, the Fifth District Court of Appeal recently addressed the scope of who could be deemed an “employer” under a local trucking law in its decision in Peninsula Logistics, Inc. v. Erb (PDF-embedded link).

This Erb litigation was born from a collision between a vehicle owned by the plaintiffs and a semi-truck owned by O & L Transport. At the time of the accident, the driver of the truck was transporting cargo for Peninsula in a trailer owned by a different entity. Following the collision, the plaintiffs brought suit against several defendants, including Peninsula. Although the driver was not directly employed by Peninsula, the plaintiffs argued that Peninsula could nonetheless be held liable because Peninsula fell within the definition of an employer under a pertinent trucking regulation. Eventually, the case went to trial, which resulted in a favorable verdict for the plaintiffs. Peninsula brought an appeal, arguing that it could not be considered an employer as a matter of law, and therefore the trial court erred in not granting its motion for a directed verdict.

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Typically, if one were asked to think of an object involved in the commission of a tort, an ornamental vegetable would not spring to mind. However, harm caused by an ornamental pumpkin is at the center of a recent negligence decision from Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal, Schwartz v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Specifically at issue in Schwartz was whether the trial court erred in granting a motion for a new trial following a zero-damages jury verdict and whether the trial court erred by limiting the retrial to just damages for the plaintiff’s initial medical evaluation after the accident.

The plaintiff in this case was shopping at a Florida Wal-Mart store when she was struck in the back by an ornamental pumpkin. The ornamental pumpkin weighed 8.4 ounces and was described as squishy. Prior to trial, Wal-Mart conceded that the plaintiff was struck by the pumpkin because of an employee’s negligent conduct. However, Wal-Mart contested both causation and damages, which are both necessary for establishing negligence. After trial, a jury issued a zero-damages verdict, finding that Wal-Mart’s negligence was not the “cause” of the plaintiff’s claimed loss, injury, or damages. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial but limited the new trial to strictly those damages associated with the plaintiff’s initial medical evaluation following the accident. On appeal, Wal-Mart argued that the trial court should not have granted the motion for a new trial, and the plaintiff argued that the trial court should not have limited the inquiry on retrial so narrowly.

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The dangerous instrumentality doctrine is a long-established principle of tort law. Under this doctrine, a person with a property interest in a vehicle is vicariously and strictly liable for the injuries that result from negligent operation of that vehicle by a person to whom he or she granted custody of it. Although the principle is well established, questions regarding its application still arise. For example, in one recent case, Christensen v. Bowen, the Supreme Court addressed a question that arose from it, which had been certified to it by the Fifth District Court of Appeal.

Bowen arose from a motor vehicle accident that occurred in early 2005 when one of the defendants, the former wife of the other defendant, negligently struck and killed another person while operating the vehicle. At the time of the accident, title to the vehicle remained in the name of both the defendants, although the vehicle had been purchased while the defendants were in the process of getting a divorce. At the time of purchase, the then-married defendants signed an application for certificate of title to be issued to them as owner and co-owner. The then-husband never received copy of the certificate of title, since it was mailed to his wife’s address. In addition, the then-husband never had keys or access to the vehicle. Following the accident, the estate of the deceased brought suit against the driver and her former husband. The former wife moved for a directed verdict on the ground that her former husband was an “owner,” but the trial court denied the motion. A jury eventually found that the former husband was not an owner for purposes of applying the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, but his former wife appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by not granting her motion for a directed verdict on ownership. The Fifth District Court of Appeal agreed but certified the question to the Supreme Court of Florida as a question of great public importance.

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