Employers sometimes face vicarious liability for personal injury and property damage when employees use their own vehicles in connection with the performance of their job duties and get into traffic accidents.  When facing such claims, California employers have generally been able to rely on legal exceptions that carve out an employee’s regular commute as well as trips made by employees for personal (rather than job related) purposes.  However, the recent decision from the California Court of Appeal in Moradi v. Marsh USA, Inc., — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2013 WL 5203485 (Sept. 17, 2013), could create further ambiguity and potentially expand the scope of employer liability in this area.

The Moradi case involved a traffic accident that took place at the end of a workday.  After having transported some employees to a work related program, insurance salesperson Judy Bamberger left her office in her personal vehicle and drove towards her home, planning to make stops for frozen yogurt and to attend a yoga class on the way.  As she was entering the yogurt shop’s parking lot, she collided with motorcyclist Majid Moradi.  Moradi subsequently sued both Bamberger and her employer.

Pursuant to the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer can only be held liable for the actions of an employee if that employee is acting within the scope of his or her employment.  In connection therewith, employers can generally avoid liability for traffic accidents that occur during an employee’s regular commute under the “coming and going” rule, which states that the daily commute is generally considered to be outside the scope of employment.  In contrast, when an employee is running a “special errand” for the employer (such as attending an off-site meeting) which takes them away from their regular workplace, the employer may be held liable for traffic accidents that occur during the employee’s commute.  Given that Bamberger’s accident took place while she was driving home as part of her regular commute from her office, and because she was running personal errands for herself at the time, the employer argued that it could not be held liable for her actions because she was not acting within the scope of her employment.

The Court of Appeal rejected the employer’s arguments and found that Bamberger was acting within the scope of her employment, even when she was simply commuting to and from work, because her job duties required frequent use of an automobile, and because her employer required her to bring her own personal vehicle to the office (rather than taking public transportation or using carpools) and required her to make work-related trips using her vehicle during the day.  The court reasoned that, because her job required frequent car travel beyond her regular commute, the employer derived enough of a benefit from Bamberger’s use of her vehicle to bring it within the scope of the “required vehicle” exception.  Under this exception, an employee is deemed to be engaged in the course of employment even while driving to or from work if the employer gains at least an incidental benefit from the employee using his or her car during the course of the workday.

In support of its analysis, the court noted that Bamberger was required to use her vehicle to visit prospective clients, give presentations and educational seminars, and transport company materials and coworkers to work-related destinations.  The fact that Bamberger was stopping for yogurt at the time of the accident and was planning on driving to a yoga class before going home did not alter the court’s conclusion, because such activities were considered to be foreseeable and did not constitute a substantial departure from her regular commute.

In light of the Moradi decision, employers should be aware that by requiring employees to use their own vehicles during the workday for work-related activities, they could be exposing themselves to potential liability resulting from traffic accidents that occur during the employees’ commute – even if an employee takes minor detours to engage in personal errands along the way.