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Vicarious Liability in Truck Accident Cases

Sometimes an employer can be held responsible for a driver’s negligence in a truck accident case, but the rules that apply are quite complicated. In Bowman v. Benouttas, a Tennessee appellate court considered whether the defendant could be held vicariously liable for its delivery driver’s negligence. The case arose from an accident in which a tractor-trailer owned and operated by Mr. Benouttas struck the plaintiff’s car in a multi-vehicle accident. Mr. Benouttas was hauling freight under contract with a company (MGR), which the freight company AllStates Trucking had brokered to MGR based on a broker-carrier agreement.

The plaintiff started a lawsuit claiming that Mr. Benouttas was negligent in operating his truck, thereby causing the accident, and that while he was driving he was an agent of both MGR and AllStates. She alleged that the latter two companies were vicariously liable under agency principles or joint venture.

AllStates filed a motion for summary judgment and argued there was no agency relationship between itself and the driver or between itself and MGR, and there was no joint venture. It submitted an independent brokerage contract it had with MGR, under which MGR had agreed to employ whoever was necessary to perform under the contract and explicitly stated there was no employer-employee relationship between the broker and the carrier. There was no contract with Mr. Benouttas.

The plaintiff argued that AllStates could be vicariously liable on the basis of vicarious liability for an independent contractor, loaned servant, or implied partnership. She also argued that it could be liable under a theory of negligent hiring. She admitted that MGR was accountable for employing drivers but denied that the brokerage contract created only an independent contractor relationship. She argued that MGR had been cited numerous times for safety issues and that brokers like AllStates needed to consider these facts when making their hiring decisions. She argued that the issues required a jury to resolve conflicts in the facts.

AllStates replied and argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to establish either joint venture or agency and that she should be barred from asserting liability under the other theories because she hadn’t alleged these in her complaint. The plaintiff asked to amend her complaint.

The court denied the motion to amend for all additional theories except implied partnership on the grounds that it would be prejudicial to the defendants and inefficient. The court also denied the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and granted AllStates’ motion, finding there was no element of control in the relationship between AllStates and Mr. Benouttas.

The plaintiff appealed. The appellate court explained that individuals can only be liable for their own actions, except under certain circumstances in which vicarious liability applies. Under respondeat superior, a principal can be vicariously liable for its agent’s tort if the agent was acting on business for the principal and within the scope of that employment when the injury happened. The extent of control over the way in which work is performed is one of the most significant differences between an agency relationship and an independent contractor relationship.

The appellate court reasoned that Mr. Benouttas and AllStates had never communicated before the accident. AllStates didn’t provide any equipment; the truck belonged to Mr. Benouttas. The court determined that both MRG and Mr. Benouttas were independent contractors, and it found AllStates not vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior.

It also explained that a joint venture in Tennessee is an association of people who have an intent to engage in a single business venture for the purpose of joint profit. There must be a community of interest between the people, and each must have an equal right to control how the common purpose will be carried out.

In this case, Mr. Benouttas hadn’t entered into any agreement with AllStates, and AllStates didn’t have an equal right to control the venture. MRG took responsibility for hiring drivers. Accordingly, there was no joint venture. For these and other reasons, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

Trucking companies are often represented by tenacious insurance attorneys. If you are injured in a truck accident in Tennessee or elsewhere in the surrounding region, such as in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, or Kentucky, it is crucial to retain attorneys who understand this area of the law. Call Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz at 1-800-529-4004 or through our online form to set up a free consultation.