Why it matters

A California appellate panel considered the issue of the location of a “workplace” for purposes of employer liability when an employee got into a car accident. An employee at a construction company was expected to first drive to the company’s yard each day and then drive a company truck from the yard to the day’s jobsite, ferrying coworkers and materials. One day, while driving from his home to the yard, the employee collided with a motorcyclist, who sued the construction company. A trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, holding that the worker was commuting to work and not acting within the scope of his employment. The appellate panel reversed, finding a material issue of fact as to the location of the employee’s “workplace.” If the yard was the employee’s workplace, then he was engaged in an ordinary commute and not acting within the scope of his employment, letting the employer off the hook. But if the jobsite was his workplace, then the motorcyclist could argue the employee was on a business errand to the yard for the employer’s benefit, the panel said, with the potential for the employer’s liability.

Detailed discussion

Beginning in October 2010, Modern Alloys Inc. employed Juan Campos as a cement and mason finisher. The employer expected Campos to arrive at its yard at about 8:00 p.m. before paying him for working a 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. shift at the jobsite. After arriving at the yard, Campos would drive one of the company’s two-ton dump trucks to the jobsite, carrying coworkers and construction materials, and then drive it back at the end of his shift.

One evening, while driving from his home to the yard in his own vehicle, Campos collided with Michael Sumrall, who was riding a motorcycle. Sumrall filed suit against Modern Alloys alleging respondeat superior liability for Campos’ negligence. A trial court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, and Sumrall appealed.

Evaluating the undisputed facts, the appellate panel said it could draw two reasonable inferences: first, that Campos was on a normal commute, and second, that Campos was also on a business errand for Modern Alloys while commuting from his home to the yard. For that reason, the court reversed summary judgment and remanded the case to the trial court.

As the court recognized, in general, an employee is not acting within the scope of employment while traveling to and from the workplace. But, the court explained, if the employee—while commuting—is on an errand for the employer, then the employee’s conduct is within the scope of his or her employment from the time the errand begins, according to the “business errand exception” to the “going-and-coming rule” and would be a question of fact for the jury.

Therefore, the court concluded that the location of Campos’ workplace was “a material, triable issue” for a jury, with several questions to be resolved.

In reaching its conclusion, the court considered, “Was the ‘workplace’ the yard where Campos first arrived, or was it the jobsite where he applied his skills as a concrete worker and was paid for that work?” “Was it an incidental benefit for Modern Alloys to have Campos—a masonry worker—first arrive at the yard and drive material and coworkers in a two-ton truck to a jobsite without being paid? Is it common for a commuter to drive from his home to a location where he will not be paid for his work, rather than to drive directly to the jobsite where the employer will pay him for his work? Would Campos have driven directly from his home to the jobsite if not expected to do otherwise?”

If Modern Alloys had actually paid Campos from the time he arrived at its yard, then the court said it “arguably would not be reasonable to hold the company liable for any of Campos’ torts before he got there. That would not be a foreseeable cost of Modern Alloy’s construction business.”

But Campos performed some of his duties at no additional cost to Modern Alloys, with the employer accomplishing that savings by directing Campos to first drive from his home to its yard. “Therefore, Modern Alloys has arguably assumed the ‘allocation of a risk’ under the respondeat superior doctrine, and the business errand exception to the going and coming rule may reasonably apply,” the panel wrote.

As the court could not state as a matter of law that Campos was not on a business errand while commuting from his home to the employer’s yard, it reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer and remanded the case to the trial court.

To read the opinion in Sumrall v. Modern Alloys Inc., click here.