In a recent appellate case, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled on an important issue regarding apportionment of fault in truck accident lawsuits. The case arose when a man crossing the street was hit by a truck driven by the defendant and owned by the defendant’s employer. The administrator of the man’s estate sued the defendants for wrongful death and personal injury. The lower court granted partial summary judgment on the administrator’s claims for negligent entrustment, supervision, and hiring, as well as punitive damages.
At the trial, the jury determined the defendants were 50% at fault and the decedent was 50% at fault. Accordingly, under Georgia’s modified comparative negligence rule, barring recovery if a plaintiff is 50% or more at fault, the administrator could not recover damages for the estate.
The plaintiff administrator appealed. An appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision. It reasoned that because the trucking company admitted that the doctrine of respondeat superior applied, and the lower court granted summary judgment to the employer on the plaintiff’s punitive damages, the employer was entitled to summary adjudication of the estate’s negligent hiring training, supervision and entrustment claims.
The plaintiff appealed again. The Georgia Supreme Court explained that under the rule of respondeat superior, when the defendant employee is found negligent and his employer has conceded it is vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior, summary judgment may be proper with regard to claims for negligent retention, supervision, training, hiring, and entrustment. However, there is an exception when a plaintiff also brings a valid claim for punitive damages against the employer for its own separate negligence.
Under O.C.G.A section 51–12–33 when a plaintiff is partly responsible for the injuries or damages he’s claiming in a lawsuit, the court is supposed to determine his percentage of fault and reduce the amount of damages proportionately. Moreover, the court is supposed to apportion the award of damages among each person who is liable according to his or her percentage of fault. The court is supposed to consider the fault of anyone who contributed to the injuries irrespective of whether he or she was named a party in the lawsuit. In Georgia, liability in a personal injury lawsuit is several.
The Georgia Supreme Court reasoned that the negligence-based claims against an employer constituted claims that the employer itself departed from the legal duty owed to the plaintiff and in so doing, legally caused injuries to the plaintiff.
The defendants argued that removing the respondeat superior rule would negatively affect Georgia’s comparative negligence doctrine. Issues such as an employee’s prior misconduct and the employer’s knowledge of that were not relevant to whether the employee was negligent.
However, the Georgia Supreme Court disagreed. It found that evidence that tended to show an employer’s fault would impact the outcome of a lawsuit since the jury was required to consider the fault of anyone or any entity who contributed to the injuries. Evidence of the trucking company’s fault would be neither irrelevant nor unfairly prejudicial.
Any claims that the trucking company was negligent could be divided from claims that the truck driver was negligent. Percentages of fault could be assigned. An employer’s actions in negligently retaining, supervising, training, hiring, or entrusting an employee are independent actions that can be separated from the employee’s actions, and need not be considered concerted acts between employee and employer.
The Georgia Supreme Court concluded that the respondeat superior rule had been abrogated by OCGA section 51–12–33. It reversed the judgment.
If you were injured in a truck accident in Atlanta, it’s important to talk to a personal injury attorney who has experience going up against powerful trucking companies. Stephen M. Ozcomert can help you figure out your legal options. Call us today at (404) 370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.