Although an employer can be liable for certain acts of one of its employees, the Arizona Supreme Court in 2012 issued a ruling which found an employer not liable for an accident caused by its employee during an out-of-town work assignment and after work hours. Engler v. Gulf Interstate Engineering, Inc., No. CV-11-0273 PR.
Ian Gray, Gulf Interstate Engineering (“Gulf”)’s employee, lived in Houston but traveled to Yuma, Arizona, each week for work. While in Yuma, Gray stayed in a hotel and commuted each day to a worksite in Mexico. Gulf reimbursed Gray’s business expenses, including the cost of his lodging, rental cars, meals, and daily travel to and from the jobsite (which involved crossing an international border.) Because Gray’s international crossings often involved significant delays, especially when returning to Yuma, Gulf considered Gray’s work day to begin when he left his hotel in Yuma and to conclude when he returned to his hotel. After work hours, Gulf did not attempt to supervise Gray or control his activities.
On December 11, 2007, the day of the accident, Gray had returned to his hotel in Yuma around 7:30 p.m. Shortly thereafter, Gray and a co-worker left the hotel in Gray’s rental car and drove to a restaurant for dinner. On the way back to the hotel after dinner, Gray made an improper left hand turn and hit a motorcycle driven by Aaron Engler. Engler, who sustained serious injuries from the accident, filed a lawsuit against both Gray and Gulf, alleging negligence against Gray and vicarious liability against Gulf (alleging that Gray’s negligent conduct occurred during the course and scope of his employment with Gulf.)
The Arizona Supreme Court rejected Engler’s arguments that Gulf was liable for Gray’s conduct. The Court held that, although Gray was on an out-of-town work assignment when the accident occurred, because Gray was not subject to Gulf’s control after work hours (at the time of the accident), Gray was acting with an independent purpose and not within the scope of his employment with Gulf. The Court further explained that because Gray was not serving Gulf’s interests by traveling to and from a restaurant after work hours and Gulf had no control over where, when, or even if Gray chose to eat dinner, Gulf could not be vicariously liable for Gray’s negligent conduct.
Although this ruling limits an employer’s liability for an employee’s conduct outside of work hours and outside of the employer’s control, employers should remain aware that they may be held liable for an employee’s actions and should encourage employees to exercise caution at all times.