Employer Held Not Vicariously Liable For Employee’s Actions
Published by Eric A. Welter on March 8, 2011
On January 4, 2011, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a defense verdict for Pizza Hut, finding that the restaurant was not liable for a traffic accident involving a delivery driver’s disabled vehicle left in a traffic lane in the intersection where the accident occurred. More after the break. Glen Fletcher sued Pizza […]
On January 4, 2011, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a defense verdict for Pizza Hut, finding that the restaurant was not liable for a traffic accident involving a delivery driver’s disabled vehicle left in a traffic lane in the intersection where the accident occurred. More after the break.
Glen Fletcher sued Pizza Hut after Fletcher’s vehicle was struck by a car driven by Rene Ayala, who ran a red light at a Manassas intersection. Fletcher alleged Pizza Hut was vicariously liable due to a disabled car left by its owner, the pizza delivery driver. Fletcher, a 68-year-old retired Methodist minister, suffered traumatic brain injury and won a $3.3 million verdict against Ayala in Prince William Circuit Court.
Fletcher’s claims against Pizza Hut were nonsuited in state court after pretrial rulings excluded such evidence as the pizza store manager’s directive to remove the Pizza Hut sign from the stalled vehicle. The revived claims were removed to federal court, and the case was tried on the sole issue of Pizza Hut’s vicarious liability for the driver’s allegedly negligent acts. A jury deliberated less than three hours before delivering a verdict for Pizza Hut.
A three-judge panel in Fletcher v. Pizza Hut of America Inc, agreed that, as a matter of law, Ayala’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of the accident, even though the jury decided the case on different grounds. The panel stated that the issue was whether Ayala’s actions “so eclipsed any negligence by Pizza Hut or its employees that, as a matter of law, Ayala’s actions became the sole proximate cause of the accident.” According to the 4th Circuit, the case was a “textbook case of superseding causation under Virginia law.”
Ayala testified that the last time he saw the traffic signal governing the left-turn lane, before he made a left turn, the signal displayed a green arrow. But Ayala admitted he may have been mistaken and the traffic signal for the blocked left-turn lane may have changed to red before he made the turn, as a witness testified. Testimony from other witnesses also supported the conclusion that Ayala had run the red light.
Based on the testimony, Ayala acted negligently because he disobeyed the red light governing the left-turn lane, and failed to ensure he could safely turn into the intersection. Ayala’s actions produced the collision and, without his actions, the accident would not have occurred. Providing several examples of different choices that Ayala could have made, such as waiting for the car to be towed or using a through lane, the Court agreed that there was no merit to the argument that the disabled vehicle required Ayala to run the red light. Thus, Ayala’s negligence was, as a matter of law, a proximate cause of the collision between his car and Fletcher’s vehicle.
The court concluded that Ayala’s independent act of negligence entirely supplanted any prior negligent act by Pizza Hut or its employees. Accordingly, the district court’s judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
A copy of the opinion can be found here.
Contributed by Michael Wilson StokerTopics: Virginia