Minnesota employers often wonder whether they can be sued following an auto accident caused by one of their employees while operating a company vehicle or even a personal vehicle. The short answer is “yes” under a variety of circumstances, so long as the employee was acting within the scope of employment at the time of the accident, regardless of who owns the vehicle.
Employer Liability for Auto Accidents Under Minnesota Law
Under the common law theory of “vicarious liability” or “respondeat superior,” Minnesota employers may be liable to third parties for physical injury or death caused by the negligence of their employees, including injuries arising from auto accidents caused by their employees. Because the employer’s liability arises from the employment relationship, the employer is only liable for conduct that occurs within the “scope of employment.” See, e.g., Nelson v. Nelson, 166 N.W.2d 70, 73 (Minn. 1969); Boland v. Morrill, 132 N.W.2d 711 (Minn. 1965).
In Boland v. Morrill, 132 N.W.2d 711 (Minn. 1965), the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a jury verdict finding an employer liable for its salesman’s automobile accident. At the time of the accident, the salesman was traveling to a friend’s farm where he stored his employer’s products in trailers. Because the salesman used these trailers primarily, although not exclusively, for the storage and delivery of his employer’s products, the court held that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that the salesman was acting within the scope of his employment when the accident occurred. According to the court, this was not a “personal visit,” but instead was “intended to ascertain” the condition of the trailers.
Scope of Employment
Determining whether an employee is acting within the scope of employment is a highly fact sensitive inquiry. Generally, an employee acts within the scope of his/her employment when “the employee’s conduct at the time of the commission of the tort . . . [is] actuated at least in part by a desire to serve the employer . . . .” Nelson v. Nelson, 166 N.W.2d 70, 73 (Minn. 1969). In other words, the employee’s actions are done in service of the employer and in furtherance of the employer’s interests. An employer may escape liability if the employee substantially deviates or detours from conduct that serves the employer. According to the courts, however, if the detour or deviation is “only slight or incidental” or the “deviation has ended,” then the employer remains liable for the employee’s conduct.
Under Minnesota law, an employer cannot escape liability for vehicular accidents caused by its employees by having the employee drive a personal vehicle. As long as the driver was acting within the scope of his/her employment, it makes no difference whether the driver was driving a personal vehicle or a vehicle furnished by the employer. Nelson, 166 N.W.2d at 73.
Takeaways for Employers
Because Minnesota employers can be liable for automobile accidents caused by their employees, it is important to ensure that all individuals who operate a vehicle – whether a company vehicle or personal automobile – have a valid driver’s license, have a clean driving record, and are otherwise qualified to operate the vehicle. Employers should also adopt vehicle safety policies to ensure that employees are well trained and understand the company’s expectations for the safe operation of vehicles. If the employer wishes to minimize the risk of liability when an employee is operating a company vehicle, the employer should adopt a strict policy prohibiting employees from using the vehicle for personal use.
To the extent required by federal or state law – such as regulations governing commercial motor vehicles – Minnesota employers should also follow all legal obligations regarding the qualification of drivers, background checks, drug testing, driver training, and vehicle safety.
Finally, it should go without saying that employers should obtain adequate liability insurance to cover all vehicular accidents. If the employer permits employees to conduct company business while operating personal vehicles, this should include “non-owned auto” insurance coverage.
If your company needs assistance developing a vehicle safety plan, contact one of the Minnesota employment law attorneys of Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A.
About the Author:
Minnesota employment attorney Craig W. Trepanier advises clients, drafts contracts, and litigates disputes in a variety of areas, including employment law, transportation law, and closely held businesses. Craig may be reached at 612.455.0502 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. is a Minnesota employment law firm and Minnesota transportation law firm located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Additional Information on Minnesota Employer Liability for Employee Negligence:
This is the first in a series of posts about the potential liability of Minnesota employers for accidents and injuries caused by their employees. This series applies to all employers, but is particularly relevant to Minnesota motor carriers, Minnesota household goods moving companies, and all Minnesota employers who require employees to operate vehicles in the course of their employment. The series includes: