Supreme Court Establishes Elements for Holding Employer Liable for Injury to Employee’s Guest.

February 25, 2008

The Supreme Court published Mid-States Plastics, Inc. v. Estate of Bryant, which dealt with the vicarious liability of an employer for tortious injury by an employee to the employee’s guest on a business trip. The SC identified the issue on appeal, succinctly, stating:

The question in this appeal is whether an employer is liable for an employee’s tortious injuries to a guest who accompanied the employee on a business trip. We opine that in order to hold the employer liable for the employee’s tortious injuries to the employee’s guest on a business trip, the employee must have acted within the scope of his authority in inviting the guest and for the purpose of accomplishing the work of the employer. Because the guest in this case had a strictly non-business purpose in accepting the employee’s invitation, we reverse the Court of Appeals and reinstate the trial court’s dismissal.

The case arose out of the employee, Edwards’, business trip to Indianapolis. He invited his pastor, Reverend William Clinton Bryant, along to visit the Reverend’s family while Edwards worked . The trip for the Reverend was free and involved no business purpose on his part for Mid-States. Unfortunately, the plane struck a cell phone tower and crashed on the return trip, killing both Edwards and Reverend Bryant.

The trial court granted summary judgment, which was overruled by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals believed that there was a factual determination remaining whether Edwards had apparent authority to invite Bryant, and whether Mid-States failed to object. (See my earlier digest of the Appeal opinion, here.) The issue for the appeals court was one of authority. The SC noted that Kentucky law required not only a showing that the employee was acting within his scope of authority in inviting the guest, BUT also that “the guest’s presence must “be construed as being for the purpose of accomplishing the work of the corporation.”” Because there was no doubt that Reverend Bryant’s presence was not for the purpose of accomplishing the work of Mid-States, SJ was appropriate.

Justice Lambert dissented, noting that “Appellees established vicarious liability from the facts that the employee Edwards was acting within the scope of his authority and for a business purpose when the tortious act occurred. Contrary to the majority view, it was not necessary to establish that the third party, Reverend Bryant, was present for the benefit of the company.” Justice Lambert believes that, because Edwards was acting in furtherance of the employer when the tortious act occurred, Mid-States is vicariously liable for his actions.

This is an interesting case that does not turn on the issue of authority, as the court of appeals noted, (as did I in my earlier post), but on the issue of “furtherance of the employer’s business.” Thus, whether Edwards had authority or not was not the issue, but whether the “furtherance of the employer’s business” meant Edwards’ furtherance or Bryant’s. The majority in this 5-1 opinion, opined that Edwards’ invitation, and therefore, Bryant’s presence, must be in furtherance of Mid-States business, NOT Edwards’ actions while committing the tort. While Edwards’ actions in flying the plane for business may have furthered Mid-States purpose, his actions in inviting Bryant was purely for his pleasure, whether it was authorized or not. Bryant was, therefore, not present in furtherance of the business purpose. Therefore, no vicarious liability to Mid-States for failing to object to Edwards’ invitation.

Note: This is the second opinion in as many months limiting employer’s vicarious liability for tortious acts of its employees. It is also the second time Justice Lambert has been the lone dissenter.

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