Baton Rouge Car Dealer Escapes Vicarious Liability Claim in Accident Involving Motorcyclist

crash_test_collision_60_2-scaledIt’s a common scenario:  a potential buyer visits a car lot, finds a vehicle he’d like to test drive, and heads out onto the road with the salesperson in the passenger seat. What happens, though, if an accident occurs during the test drive? Suppose the potential buyer loses control of the vehicle while driving — who is responsible for injuries and property damage that result?

On October 27, 2007, Ronald Branstetter was riding his motorcycle on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge when he was allegedly forced off the highway. Branstetter states that defendants Beal and Rives were test-driving a 1988 Ford Bronco when Beal lost control of the truck. To avoid a collision, Branstetter swerved off of the highway, causing him to suffer injuries. Branstetter brought a lawsuit against Beal and Rives to recover damages from his injuries, alleging that the injuries were caused by Beal’s and Rives’s negligence. Branstetter also named Millenium Auto Sales (“Millenium”) as a defendant in the case, alleging that Millenium owned the Ford Bronco and that the company employed Rives, giving rise to a vicarious liability claim.

Under Louisiana law, employers are generally responsible for the damage caused by their employees, but only if the employee is acting within the course and scope of his employment. La. C.C. art. 2320. A “servant,” or employee, is considered to be a person under the control of another employed to perform services. On the other hand, a non-servant agent may contribute to the employer’s business but is not under the employer’s control. In determining if there is a master-servant relationship, courts often look to factors including compensation, the status of the employee, performance of a specific mission, the intensity of the relationship, control, the role of the employer in exercising control, and the direct benefit to the company. See Cason v. Saniford, 148 So. 3d 8 (La. Ct. App. 2014)

Millenium filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that there was no genuine issue of material fact and seeking dismissal of Branstetter’s claims. Millenium attached a deposition from Rives, who averred that he, and not Millennium, owned the Ford Bronco and that he was not an employee of the car dealer on the date of the accident. Rives also stated that there was no written agreement for a commission to be paid to him for the Bronco’s sale. In opposition to Millenium’s motion, Branstetter submitted evidence that Rives’s father, Eric Anders, owned Millenium and that Anders allowed Rives to display the Bronco on Millenium’s car lot to generate more sales interest.

The trial court granted Millenium’s motion for summary judgment, which dismissed Branstetter’s claims, finding that there was no vicarious liability because Rives was not an employee of Millennium. The court also found that Millenium did not have ownership of the Ford Bronco because Rives’ deposition testimony showed that there was no specific compensation amount to be paid. Branstetter appealed to Louisiana’s First Circuit Court of Appeal.

On review, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court correctly determined that the evidence did not establish a master-servant relationship; therefore, Rives was not an employee of Millenium at the time of the accident. Because Rives was not an employee, the company could not be vicariously liable for Branstetter’s claims. Additionally, the Court of Appeals affirmed the finding that Millenium was not the owner of the Bronco and affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. 

Vicarious liability is a complex legal issue that balances different factors. On the one hand, Louisiana jurisprudence is well settled that employers are responsible for the actions of their employees; on the other, liability should not be assumed to attach to an “employer” without sufficient evidence to establish a legitimate employer-employee relationship. Due to the complexity of the issue, anyone injured by someone who appears to be operating within the scope of his employment at the time of the incident should obtain the services of an experienced attorney.

Additional Sources:  BRANSTETTER v. RIVES.

Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer:  Madyson Hopkins

Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Vicarious Liability:  Bienville Parish Auto Accident Raises Questions of Vicarious Liability

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