Employer Drives Away From Liability for Employee’s Use of Employer’s Car

By: Allyson K. Thompson

A California Appellate Court recently ruled in Baker v. Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. that an employer could not be found vicariously liable for injuries its employee sustained while driving a company car on personal business. While this was a fact specific case, it nonetheless is a helpful case for employers.

Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. provided its employee, Troy Martinez, with a company car for the use of execution of his job duties. After completing his work for the day, Martinez decided to drive to Bakersfield, which was 140 miles away from his normal commute, to buy his wife a car. It should be noted that occasionally in the past Martinez did travel to Bakersfield for work. On his way back from the car dealership, Martinez struck a vehicle, injuring six passengers. The passengers sued Halliburton under a theory of vicarious liability for their injuries.

The Court found that even though Martinez was driving a company owned vehicle and travelled to a place where he had occasionally performed work, the trip itself was purely personal and was not "undertaken for the benefit of Halliburton." The Court reasoned that because the trip to Bakersfield had not been approved by Martinez's supervisor and no tasks were undertaken in Bakersfield for the benefit of Halliburton, that it was not foreseeable that Halliburton would have assumed the risk of a traffic accident, or that such a risk was incidental to Halliburton's enterprise.

The Court did distinguish that "minimal deviations," such as stopping at a yogurt shop on the way home from work, would not extinguish employer liability. The take away from this case for employers is Halliburton keeps intact the "coming and going" rule, which is an exception to the doctrine of vicarious liability.

The "coming and going" rule proscribes that an employer is not liable for providing workers' compensation benefits for injuries sustained by employees going to and coming from work. There are some notable exceptions to this rule that all employers, whether insured or self-insured, should know.

If the injury was sustained while traveling for some incidental benefit to the employer, "not common to commute trips by ordinary members of the work force," then the employer may be responsible. For many types of jobs, such as construction or sales, employment is not fixed at any particular location or time. Typically in those cases, the "coming and going" rule will not apply and the employer would be liable for the employee's injury.

Exceptions include:

  • The "commercial traveler" exception. The employer is liable for injuries sustained during business trips, including any mode of transportation such as a driving to a client meeting or flying to business meetings.
  • The "special mission" exception. The employer is liable for injuries sustained while the employee is engaged in an extraordinary task within the course of employment, and undertaken at the request or invitation of the employer. For example, a secretary gets a call at 5 a.m. from his boss, asking him to drive out of town to drop off a document to a client.

Allyson K. Thompson is an Associate with Kring & Chung, LLP's Irvine, CA office. She can be contacted at (949) 261-7700 or athompson@kringandchung.com.