Winning a lawsuit against an employer can be challenging. Employees are often transient, while the employer is an anchor in their community. Employer responsibility for an employee’s negligent action requires significant factual evidence. In a recent case out of St. John the Baptist Parish, a missing former employee and a lack of facts prevented the injured party from winning.
Herbert Collins was driving his car early one morning when Fredrick Davis struck him from behind. Kelly Construction employed Davis, and he was operating one of their vehicles at the time of the accident. Collins suffered many injuries, including spinal and muscle injuries. Collins filed a lawsuit against Davis and his employer Kelly Construction and Kelly’s insurance company Cincinnati Insurance. Collins alleged that Kelly Construction was vicariously liable for Davis’ actions because Kelly negligently allowed its vehicle to be operated by a careless, untrained driver. Davis was served with the lawsuit however was unable to be found and properly served. As a result, the lawsuit against Davis was dismissed. Even more detrimental was that without Davis, little evidence of his negligence and relationship with Kelly Construction could be gathered.
The Fortieth Judicial District Court for the Parish of St. John the Baptist dismissed the lawsuit after the trial finding there was a lack of evidence to prove vicarious liability against Kelly Construction. Even after a request for a new trial, the District Court denied the request. However, it upheld the dismissal citing a lack of evidence of an employer/employee relationship and a lack of evidence that the employee was acting in the scope of his employment. Collins appealed to the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal.
Under Louisiana Law, employers are answerable for damages caused by employees during the exercise of their employment. See La. C.C. 2320. In determining whether the actions occurred during the exercise of employment, courts look to see if the actions were so connected in time, place, and causation of the employment duties that the risk of harm is attributable to the employer’s business. See Powell v. Gramercy Inc. Co.,140 So.3d 324 (La. Ct. App. 2014). In the present case, Davis was an employee of Kelly Construction and operating a Kelly Construction vehicle when the accident occurred. Those were the only facts presented connecting Davis to Kelly Construction. Because Davis was never found and served with the lawsuit, Collins could not elicit testimony and other evidence regarding Davis’ employment duties during the accident. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the District Court that this lack of evidence should result in the dismissal of Collins’ lawsuit.
This case highlights two important principles. First, strong factual evidence is essential to keeping a lawsuit from dismissal. It is not uncommon for a lawsuit to be dismissed because of a lack of facts. An excellent lawyer can help gather and uncover the evidence required for a lawsuit to go forward. Second, an employee causing damages even while using the employer’s property does not automatically equal a winning case against the employer. A solid connection to the employer seems to be required to hold that employer liable for its employee’s actions. A good attorney can evaluate your vicarious liability claim to determine whether it meets the legal standard.
Additional Sources: Collins v. Davis, et al.
Written by: Stephanie Burnham
Additional Berniard Law Firm Article on Vicarious Liability: Employee vs. Independent Contractor. When is an Employer Responsible for Negligence?