Driver vs. Company Liability in Commercial Truck Accidents

It isn't always clear who is on the legal hook after a commercial truck accident.

After a vehicle accident involving a commercial truck, even if it is clear that the truck driver caused the accident, it's not always easy to figure out who is legally liable. In this article, we'll discuss some key things to consider when answering the liability question.

When is a Company Liable for Its Driver’s Conduct?

"Respondeat superior" is the primary theory of liability that holds a company responsible for a traffic accident caused by a truck driver employee. "Respondeat superior" is a Latin phrase that means “let the superior make answer.”

Under this principle, an employer is liable for the wrongful acts committed by its employees or agents, provided the acts were unintentional and were committed within the scope of employment. Essentially, respondeat superior imputes the employee’s liability to the employer, making the employer liable as if it had committed the wrongful act itself.

The policy governing this rule is a realization that, practically speaking, certain wrongful conduct is bound to occur during the course of the employer’s business. As a result, the losses caused by this wrongful conduct should be placed on the employer as a cost of doing business. Another rationale for respondeat superior is that businesses generally have "deep pockets", when compared to its employees, and are better able to protect themselves by purchasing insurance, spreading the cost over the entire business.

Is the Driver an Employee or Independent Contractor?

The first thing the injured person must show is that the truck driver is an employee of the company, rather than an independent contractor. That's because a company is generally not liable for wrongful acts committed by independent contractors.

Although each state’s laws may differ, generally the emphasis is placed on whether the employer has the right to control the detailed manner and means that the work must be performed. If the employer controls the result of the work, but not how the result is accomplished, then an independent contractor relationship is established.

For example, if a truck driver used his own truck, furnished his own gas and oil and own liability insurance, assumed the cost of repairs, was paid on a "per route" basis, and received no employee benefits, and the company did not withhold taxes from the driver’s paychecks or instruct the driver how to make deliveries or how to drive the truck, likely the truck driver is an independent contractor.

What Acts are “Within The Scope Of Employment”?

Determining what constitutes an act committed “within the scope of employment” can be a difficult task. Courts have adopted a number of factors to help resolve this issue. Although each state’s laws may differ, common factors can include:

  • intent of the employee
  • nature, time, and place of the employee’s conduct
  • type of work the employee was hired to do
  • incidental acts the employer should reasonably expect the employee to do
  • amount of freedom allowed to the employee in performing his or her duties, and
  • amount of time consumed in the personal activity.

For example, if a truck driver rear ends a car while making a delivery, the employer would be liable for any harm that results because the truck driver was acting “within the scope of employment”. Now suppose that the truck driver leaves work early to go to a basketball game and hits another car outside of the stadium. Here, an argument can be made that the company should not be liable for the accident because the truck driver was not acting “within the scope of employment”.

What If the Driver’s Acts Were Intentional?

There is an exception to the general rule that a company is liable for accidents caused by its employees. Generally, an employer is not liable for the intentional torts (i.e., assault, battery, kidnapping) committed by its employee. The rationale is that the purpose of the "respondeat" principle is not being met when the employee’s acts are not related to the business enterprise.

For example, if a truck driver slams into another vehicle because the driver of the other vehicle was sleeping with the truck driver’s spouse, the company will probably not be liable.

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