New York’s Fourth Department Reverses Supreme Court, Dismissing Employer from Auto Accident Claim
Case Study

New York’s Fourth Department Reverses Supreme Court, Dismissing Employer from Auto Accident Claim

December 15, 2020

A national transportation and logistics company defeated an auto accident suit stemming from an employee’s cross-border trip. Goldberg Segalla’s Samantha Catone and Christopher G. Floreale secured a dismissal for the client on appeal before the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, Fourth Department.

An employee of the company was involved in an auto accident after departing a corporate meeting at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Prior to the accident, the company released employees from the meeting with the expectation that they would return home. However, one of the employees stopped at one of the company’s U.S. facilities to say goodbye to a co-worker who was leaving the company, and then planned to stop at the facility where he worked as a manager before heading home that evening. He was on his way to the facility where he worked when his vehicle was involved in a collision with the plaintiffs’ vehicles.

The plaintiffs sued the driver and the driver’s employer, our client, in New York State Supreme Court, Erie County, claiming the driver’s employer was vicariously liable for the driver’s negligent driving because he was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the collision.

Sammy drafted and argued a motion for summary judgment, pointing to controlling case law that provides that an employee is not within the scope of their employment when driving to and from work, except in limited circumstances, none of which applied in this case. The arguments in the motion focused on the fact that the employer relinquished control over its employees, including the co-defendant driver, when it dismissed them from the meeting and expected them to return home. Sammy argued the co-defendant driver was not acting in furtherance of any obligation he owed his employer at the time of the collision, despite the fact that he decided to stop at the facility where he worked on his own accord that day, because he was not required to return to work.

The Supreme Court found a question of fact on our motion, reasoning that the co-defendant driver would not have been driving that route had it not been for the corporate meeting earlier that day, and because the co-defendant driver was on his way to the facility where he worked at the time of the collision.

We appealed from the Supreme Court’s finding that there was a question of fact regarding whether the co-defendant driver was acting within the scope of his employment with our client at the time of the collision. In perfecting and arguing our appeal, Sammy focused on the controlling case law, which clearly states that an employee driving to and from work is not within the scope of their employment except in limited circumstances—essentially, when the employee’s work vehicle is, for all intents and purposes, their “office”. This was not the case here, as the co-defendant driver was not a travelling salesperson and his employer did not have sufficient control over his activities from the time he left for work in the morning until he returned at night. Sammy further noted that the fact that the employee was leaving a corporate meeting and would not have been on that route but for the meeting was not the dispositive issue; there needs to be sufficient control over an employee’s actions at the time the accident occurs to find an employer vicariously liable for the employee’s negligence. Sammy therefore argued, and the majority agreed, that our client relinquished all control over its employees upon dismissing them from the corporate meeting that day, and the employee-driver was not acting in furtherance of any duty he owed the employer at the time the accident occurred, and therefore was not within the scope of his employment.

Dismissing our client from the litigation, the Fourth Department agreed that there was no question of fact in this regard and further noted that a finding that the employee-driver was within the scope of his employment here would have broadened employers’ liability in circumstances where they have no control over their employees’ travels and actions.