Our office remains open and serving clients during COVID-19. We also remain available 24/7 to answer questions about any potential personal injury claim toll free at 866-966-5240.

Published on:

Employer Not Responsible for Sleepy Driver Leaving Work

drowsy-driving-accident-claims-attorneysEmployers are generally not liable for the negligent actions of their employees when the employees are traveling to or from work while off the clock. However, if an employer creates a risk of injury during the employee’s commute, and the employee then causes an accident as a result of that created risk, the employer might be liable. In Feltham v. Universal Protection Service, LP, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. A161190, the California Court of Appeal considered whether the trial court’s ruling that the special risk exception had not been met was correct.

Factual and Procedural Background

Clanisha Villegas worked for Universal Protection Service, LP (DBA Allied Universal Corporation) from Feb. 2015 to May 2016 before leaving to have a baby. Universal provided security guard services to multiple medical facilities through the University of California, San Francisco. Villegas reapplied for a security guard position in 2017 and asked to work the overnight shift. During her interview, she informed the company that she had an eight-month-old baby and did not have daytime childcare. The interviewer did not ask Villegas about her daytime activities or when she was able to sleep.

Villegas was hired to work five nights per week from 11 pm to 7 am. She was not required to use her personal vehicle to travel to and from work, and Universal did not dictate how she transported herself to work. Villegas’s mother often drove Villegas to and from work, and Villegas would drop her mother off at her job before traveling home each day. Villegas began working on July 10, 2017, and she often picked up an additional shift to work six nights per week instead of five. On Aug. 21, Villegas dropped her mother off at her job before continuing to travel home. Approximately an hour after she left work and while she was close to her home, she fell asleep behind the wheel and swerved into oncoming traffic. Villegas crashed head-on into a motorcycle driven by Lucy Feltham and seriously injured her. Feltham’s husband, Matthieu Leonelli, was riding on a separate motorcycle and witnessed the accident.

Feltham and her husband filed a lawsuit against Universal and several other parties. They alleged motor vehicle negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, third-party negligence, and loss of consortium. For their third-party negligence claim, the plaintiffs alleged that Universal negligently allowed and required Villegas to work extra shifts to the point that she was excessively tired and fell asleep behind the wheel during the scope and course of her job.

Universal filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Villegas’s claims were barred by the coming and going rule. It argued that Villegas was not acting within the scope and course of her employment since she was simply commuting home from work after her shift had already ended. The plaintiffs argued that the court should apply an exception to the coming and going rule and also argued that Universal negligently hired Villegas since it knew she was a young mother who did not have daytime child care and so could not get adequate sleep. They presented two experts, who testified that her extra shift and working overnights were substantial factors in the collision’s cause and that Villegas’s sleep debt was equivalent to driving while intoxicated.

The trial court granted Universal’s motion for summary judgment and found that the coming and going rule applied. It found that the exception to the coming and going rule did not apply because Universal did not cause Villegas to work extra hours. It also pointed out that Villegas had 16 hours each day off from work so that she could have gotten adequate sleep even though she worked eight hours at night. The plaintiffs filed an appeal.

Issue: Whether Villegas’s travel home from work fit the special risk exception to the coming and going rule and thus extended liability to Universal?

On appeal, the court considered whether Villegas’s travel home from work after working a night shift fit the special risk exception to the coming and going rule. The special risk exception extends liability to an employer when an employee is traveling to work or home from work when the employer has created the risk that an employee will cause an accident.

Rule: The coming and going rule generally precludes employer liability for an employee’s negligence when the employee is commuting to or from work. However, if a court finds the accident was caused because of a special risk created by the employer, it can be an exception to the coming and going rule.

In general, employers are not liable for the negligent acts of their employees when the employees are commuting to or from work. However, there is a special risk exception under which an employer may be held liable for an employee’s negligence when the employee is commuting to or from work when the employer creates the risk of injury and the employee endangers others because of the created risk.

Analysis

The court first discussed the doctrine of respondeat superior through which an employer can be held vicariously liable for the actions of an employee while the employee is working within the scope and course of his or her employment. It noted that the coming and going rule holds that an employee is not acting within the scope and course of his or her employment during the employee’s commute to or from the job while the employee is off the clock. Employees are generally not considered to be acting within the scope and course of their employment while commuting because their employers are not deriving any benefit from their commutes, and the employees are not providing services to their employers during that time.

The court then considered whether the coming and going rule applied in Villegas’s case. It noted that Villegas was using her personal vehicle and that her employer did not dictate how she was to get to and from work. It found that the coming and going rule did apply in Villegas’s situation.

The plaintiffs argued that Villegas’s falling asleep behind the wheel still met the special risk exception to the coming and going rule. That exception applies when an employee endangers other people because of a risk that arose out of his or her employment. The injury must be a reasonably foreseeable risk of the job-related danger. Conduct will only fall within the special risk exception if the employee would not have been at the location but for his or her employment, and the risk was significantly greater than what would commonly be faced by the public.

The court considered Villegas’s work schedule and found that having 16 hours off from work did not create an excessive risk of danger. It noted that Universal had reason to believe that Villegas would get sufficient rest in between shifts during her 16-hour daily break from work. The court also found that Universal was not negligent in hiring Villegas to work a night shift as a new mother without daytime child care.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment order. Universal was awarded its costs on appeal.

Talk to an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney

If you were injured by someone who you believe was working at the time of your accident, you should consult an attorney at the Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC. We can review what happened in your case and help you to understand whether your potential claim has legal merits. Call us today for a free case evaluation at 866.966.5240.

Contact Information