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Idaho employers: Can you be liable for your employee’s wrongdoing?
December 2016
Idaho Employment Law Letter


The answer is a clear “YES,” when your employees are acting within the scope of their employment.  Idaho common law recognizes what is known as the doctrine of “respondeat superior,” which is Latin is translated as “let the master answer.”  This doctrine is one of the primary ways that an injured third party can attempt to hold an Idaho employer liable for the torts committed by its employee.  This doctrine may apply even though the employer had no intent to cause harm to the third party and had no part in causing harm.  The Idaho legislature, however, has enacted a statute that provides certain protections for employers that relate to the doctrine of respondeat superior.  It is important for Idaho employers to be aware of this doctrine and related statute, and to know how they can be held responsible for the wrongdoings of their employees, so precautionary steps can be taken, to the extent possible, to reduce the chances of being held liable to injured third parties. Read on to learn how the doctrine and related statute are applied and how you can protect your business in the future.
 

The Common Law Doctrine of Respondeat Superior 

          Under Idaho law, the doctrine of respondeat superior provides that an employer is liable in tort for the conduct of its employee committed while acting within the scope of employment.  What is within the scope of employment is the key, and includes conduct (a) which is the kind the employee is employed to perform, (b) which occurs substantially within the authorized limits of time and space of which the employee is employed, and (c) which is actuated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the employer.  When making a determination as to whether employee conduct was within the scope of employment, Idaho courts focus on the service to the employer – i.e., acts of the employee done to serve the employer fall within the scope of the employment, while acts pursued by the employee for purely personal purposes to not.  Idaho courts also look to whether the employer had a right to control what the employee was doing at the time of the alleged negligence.  There are other nuances to the doctrine that may be applicable depending on the facts of a given case.  In other words, what is within the scope of employment is a fact intensive inquiry.  

Idaho Statutory Law Relating to the Doctrine of Respondeat Superior 

          In 2000, the Idaho Legislature enacted Idaho Code § 6-1607, which addresses certain circumstances where an Idaho employer can be held statutorily liable for the torts of its employees.  The statute also provides specific protections for Idaho employers.  The legislative purpose behind this enactment was to limit a private or public employer’s liability for the acts of former employees committed after the termination of employment and for acts of current employees committed off the job.  Under this statute, the person who commits the act which causes the injury to a third party will remain responsible for the consequences of the wrongful act, but liability will not be imputed to the employer unless the employer has been grossly negligent.  Though this is what the legislative purpose states, let’s take a closer look at what the specific provisions of this statute really have to say, and how they have been applied by the courts. 

          Idaho Code § 6-1607(1) states that no Idaho employer can be held liable for the torts of an employee that occur after the termination of the employee’s employment unless it can be established that the actions or inactions of the employer were grossly negligent, reckless, and/or willful and wonton.  Furthermore, there is the additional prerequisite that it must be the employer’s conduct that caused the harm to the injured third party.  There does not yet appear to be any Idaho cases where this statutory provision has been interpreted and/or applied.  Guess we will have to wait and see.  

            Interestingly, Idaho Code § 6-1607(2) states that there is a presumption that an employer is not liable for the alleged tort of a current employee unless (a) the employee was wholly or partially engaged in the employer’s business, (b) the employee reasonably appeared to be engaged in the employer’s business when the tort was committed, (c) the employee was on the employer’s premises when the alleged tort occurred, or (d) the employee was otherwise under the direction or control of the employer when the alleged tort occurred.  Presuming that the circumstances (i.e., or exceptions, if you will) identified in (a) through (d) do not apply to the facts of a given case, an injured third party is required to establish that the employer’s actions were grossly negligent, reckless, and/or willful and wanton in order to overcome the general presumption that an employer is not liable for an employee’s torts.  Although it seems like this provision protects Idaho employers, its exceptions, for all intents and purposes, swallow that protection.  This statute will be explored in further detail below in a decision issued by the Idaho Supreme Court. 

            Finally, Idaho Code § 6-1607(3) provides that in every lawsuit where there are allegations that an employer is liable for the torts of an employee, the employer shall have the right to a pre-trial hearing where the plaintiff is required to establish a reasonable likelihood of proving facts at trial that would show that damages should be apportioned to the employer.  This provision provides significant protection to Idaho employers and presents a significant hurdle for plaintiffs.  

Case Law Applying the Doctrine of Respondeat Superior and Idaho Code § 6-1607 

            In 2005, Christian Rivas-Del Toro began working as a truck driver for Cranney Farms.  Del Toro was a Mexican citizen, and held a valid Mexican chauffeur license, but he was in the United States illegally and did not possess an Idaho driver’s license.  On January 30, 2006, Del Toro was driving truck for Cranney Farms and received a citation for failing to stop at a point of entry and for driving an over-length vehicle.  When Del-Toro showed his Mexican license to the officer, he was informed that he would need to obtain an Idaho license within three months, and that if the officer stopped Del Toro again and he had not obtained an Idaho license, things would only get worse for him.  Del Toro gave the citation to Cranney Farm’s secretary and it was apparently paid.  

            On June 15, 2007, Del Toro was instructed by his supervisor to drive a truck and trailer to a specific farm and load hay.  Prior to leaving, Del Toro found that two tires on the trailer were in need of repair and that the truck needed fuel.  He then obtained authority from Cranney Farm’s secretary to refuel the truck and repair the damaged tires.  After filling the truck with fuel, Del Toro drove towards the tire store.  He did not take the most direct route, however, because he was concerned about running into the police.  Apparently Del Toro had not obtained an Idaho license, and he continued to be in the country illegally.  While taking the longer route, Del Toro failed to stop at a stop sign and struck a vehicle driven by Beatriz Nava and occupied by Nava’s minor daughter.  Del Toro claimed that the brakes were not working properly on the trailer. 

            Nava, on behalf of herself and her daughter, filed a lawsuit alleging that Cranney Farms was liable because it owned the truck that Del Toro was driving and because it had given permission to Del Toro to drive the truck.  Nava further alleged that Cranney Farms was liable because it had recklessly allowed the truck to become unsafe to operate.  Notably, Del Toro did not allege that Cranney Farms was liable to Nava based upon the doctrine of respondeat superior. 

            Cranney Farms subsequently moved for summary judgment on the grounds that it was not liable for the negligence of Del Toro because he was outside the scope and course of his employment at the time of the accident.  In other words, Cranney Farms argued that because Del Toro decided to take a longer route in order to avoid the police, Del Toro was acting outside the scope of his employment, and, therefore, the presumption contained in Idaho Code § 6-1607(2) remained intact and Cranney Farms should not be liable for Del Toro’s tortious act.  The trial court agreed with this argument, and dismissed Nava’s action as against Cranney Farms.  Nava appealed the trial court’s decision. 

            On appeal, the Idaho Supreme Court set forth the law relating to the doctrine of respondeat superior, and addressed how that doctrine interplays with Idaho Code § 6-1607.  The court first noted that, under respondeat superior, “an employer is liable in tort for the tortious conduct of an employee committed within the scope of employment.”  The court further recognized a nuance of the doctrine; that is, what is within the “scope of employment” has been defined in Idaho to mean “those acts which are so closely connected with what the [employee] is employed to do, and so fairly and reasonably incidental to it, that they may be regarded as methods, even though quite improper ones, of carrying out the objectives of the employment.”  

            Next, the court took the opportunity to interpret the various provisions of Idaho Code § 6-1607.  It began its analysis with the finding that the statute did not change the standard, identified above, for determining whether a current employee was acting within the scope of employment.  This is significant because the Court was, in essence, stating that the statute does not modify the court’s prior interpretation and application of the respondeat superior doctrine, but rather supplements it.  

            With respect to § 6-1607(2), the court set forth the general employer non-liability presumption, and identified the four exceptions described above.  The court began by looking at the exception where “the employee was wholly or partially engaged in the employer’s business.”  The court then digressed by noting that, under prior applicable case law: (1) “an employee’s tortious conduct may be within the scope of employment even if it was partly performed to serve the purposes of the employee or a third person”; (2) an “employee’s purpose or intent, however misguided in its means, must be to further the employer’s business interest”; (3) if “the employee acts from ‘purely personal motives in no way connected with the employer’s interest, then the employer is not liable”; and, (4) “in order for the employer to be liable, service to the employer need not have been the employee’s only or even primary purpose.”    

            With this established law in hand, the court surveyed cases with facts similar to that at issue and recognized that “an employee who is driving from one place to another in performing his or her duties is not outside the scope of employment merely because the employee does not drive the most direct route, even if the deviation from the most direct route is for personal reasons.”  It is only when there has been a “marked departure or deviation from the employee’s line of duty” that an employer’s liability is terminated.  This finding, you would think, signaled the death knell for Cranney Farms’ summary judgment victory.  Read on to find out it was actually the basis for the court’s decision on appeal.           

            The court next looked at the second exception where the employer’s presumption of non-liability applies unless the “employee reasonably appeared to be engaged in the employer’s business when the tort was committed.”  In other words, the court found that this exception does not apply unless a plaintiff alleges that an employer is liable in tort for a current employee’s actions due to the employer/employee relationship.  The court noted that this is a factual determination, and if there is evidence that the employee reasonably appeared to be so engaged, then it is up to the jury to determine whether the employee was actually engaged in the scope of his or her employment.  

            Regarding the third exception contained in Idaho Code § 6-1607(2) – i.e., the employer’s presumption does not apply if the employee “was on the employer’s premises when the allegedly tortious” act occurred – the court found that it “simply made the presumption inapplicable.  It does not establish that the conduct was within the scope of employment.”  Stated differently, even if the statutory employer presumption of non-liability is found not to apply because the employee committed a tort on the employer’s property, it remains to be determined whether the employee’s conduct was within the scope of his or her employment. 

            With respect to the fourth exception, the court simply stated that the employer’s presumption of non-liability does not apply under circumstances where the first three exceptions are not applicable, and the employee is determined to have been under the direction or control of the employer when the tortious act was committed.  

            With the foregoing law as guidance, the Court addressed the merits of the case by comparing the allegations of plaintiff Nava – i.e., that Cranney Farms was liable because it owned the truck that Del Toro was driving and because it had given permission to Del Toro to drive the truck – with the bases for the trial court’s decision dismissing Nava’s action, that being Idaho Code § 6-1607(2).  You'll recall that the trial court had held that Del Toro was acting outside the scope and course of his employment because he took a longer route to avoid police, and, as such, the employer non-liability presumption in Idaho Code § 6-1607(2) remained intact.  Significantly, however, the Court noted that Nava had not alleged in her complaint that Del Toro was an employee of Cranney Farms, and Nava had not alleged that Cranney Farms was liable in tort based on any employer/employee relationship.  Because Nava had not made these allegations, the Court found that Nava had not alleged a cause of action under the doctrine of respondeat superior, and, therefore, the trial court had erred in applying Idaho Code 6-1607.  For these reasons, the Idaho Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. 

What Can We Learn From All of This? 

            First, make sure that you have an insurance policy in place that provides adequate coverage so that you are protected in the unfortunate circumstance that your employee causes harm to a third party, whether it be in an automobile accident or otherwise.  Discussions with your attorney and insurance agent can assist you in making that determination.  Second, have defined policies setting forth the responsibilities and duties of your employees, which policies also set forth what employee actions are and are not authorized.  This could be of assistance to you when a court is making the determination as to whether an act of your employee is deemed to be within the scope of his or her employment.  Make sure that you also monitor your employees to make sure they are following all of your policies.  If you have an employee that is always breaking your policies, they are likely exposing you to liability.  Finally, if you have an employee that is involved in a situation where a third party is harmed, make sure that you thoroughly investigate the circumstances surrounding what occurred and do your best to document everything.  If you believe it is warranted, get your attorney involved early on to assist in the investigation. 

           

           

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