Last week the Utah Supreme Court ruled that an employee’s commute may in some cases be within the course and scope of his or her employment, such that an employer may be held liable for the employee’s negligence during the commute.
In Newman v. White Water Whirlpool, the defendant employed Bradley Sundquist as an installer of marble countertops and tile. In his job, Sundquist would drive White Water’s materials and equipment to jobsites in his own truck and trailer. One morning, on his way to White Water’s offices, Sundquist’s truck collided with a car driven by plaintiff Newman, injuring him severely. Newman sued both Sundquist and White Water, alleging that Sundquist was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident, thus making White Water jointly liable for his injuries. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis that Sundquist was merely commuting, and therefore not acting in the course and scope of his employment.
The Utah Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a jury could find that Sundquist was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident. Why? Because Sundquist’s job required him to drive his truck carrying the employer’s equipment and materials, and then returning unused materials to White Water, reasonable minds could conclude that he was not merely commuting but was in fact returning materials to his employer. If so, that would mean Sundquist was working at the time of the accident and White Water is liable for his negligence.
Utah employers should pay close attention to this ruling. Employees who merely commute to and from work without performing any duties during the commute are not acting in the course and scope of their employment and employers will not be liable for any accidents that they might cause. Employers may, however, be liable for the negligent acts of employees who are driving as part of their job duties. If you have an employee whose "commute" includes occasional job duties (such as ferrying equipment and supplies, talking on a cell phone, reviewing documents, etc.), you should realize that their negligence might be imputed on your company and take any appropriate steps to ensure that they are driving as safely as possible.