New Liability Case Update - Employer Liability for Employee's Motor Tort


Barclay v. Briscoe, 2012 Md. LEXIS 385 (Md. June 27, 2012).

This case involved a motorist, Sgt. Michael Barclay, who was seriously injured after a collision with Christopher Richardson. Richardson, a longshoreman employed with Ports America Baltimore, Inc. ("Ports"), fell asleep at the wheel while traveling home after completing a 22-hour shift at work. Richardson was killed in the head-on collision.

Barclay and his wife filed suit in Carroll County against several parties, including Ports, alleging liability for his injuries under two theories: respondeat superior and primary negligence in failing to protect the motoring public at large from an employee driving home from an unreasonably long shift.

Ports filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that Richardson was not acting within the scope of his employment while traveling home from work and that it owed no duty to the public to ensure Richardson was fit to drive his vehicle home. The Circuit Court agreed and granted Ports' Motion. On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed, as did the Court of Appeals, who wrote this decision.

The doctrine of respondeat superior stands for the rule that an employer will not be held responsible for the negligent operation of an employee's automobile unless the employer expressly had the right to control the employee in its operation or if the use of the automobile was of such vital importance in furthering the employer's business that his control over it may reasonably be inferred. It is the general rule in Maryland, and the rule applied by the Court here, that, absent special circumstances, an employer will not be held vicariously liable for the negligent conduct of his employee that occurs while the employee is traveling to and from work.

The Court discussed that on-the-job fatigue is not sufficient to create a special circumstance under which the employer could be held liable. Special circumstances must prove that the employee is not only commuting to and from work but that he is using his personal vehicle, as authorized by the employer, to engage in duties on the employer's behalf. Barclay argued that Ports had control over Richardson's fatigue by scheduling him to work long hours. The Court disagreed and said the pertinent evaluation was whether Ports had control over the operation of Richardson's vehicle; they concluded Ports did not have such control.

The rule that an employer is not liable for actions of the employee when traveling to and from work is found in both respondeat superior and workers' compensation. There are also special circumstances or "special mission" exceptions in each field. There is, however, a distinction relevant in this case. Workers' Compensation requires that an injury arise out of and in the course of one's employment whereas respondeat superior requires that an employee be acting in the scope of employment. As a result of their analysis, the Court held that Ports may not be held liable, under the doctrine of respondeat superior, for the injuries suffered by Barclay.

Barclay also argued that Ports was liable for his injuries as a result of their own negligence in failing to prevent the risk a fatigued employee posed to the motoring public at large. In order to win on a claim of negligence, Barclay must prove that a duty was owed by the Defendant (here Ports), that this duty was breached and that injury was the proximate result. The Court resolved this issue on the basis of duty.

It was argued that the collision was a foreseeable result of Richardson driving when fatigued. The Court made clear several times that foreseeability does not, in itself, give rise to a duty. Maryland's general rule is that there is no duty to control a third person's conduct to prevent personal harm to another unless a special relationship exists either between the actor and the third person or between the actor and the person injured.

Also, an employer may be found to owe a duty on behalf of his employee, even if acting outside the scope of his employment, when the employee is either on the employer's premises which he has access to only by virtue of being an employee or when the employee is using a chattel (ie. vehicle) of the employer and the employer has the right to control this use.

Ports had no special relationship with Barclay that would give rise to a duty. Further, Ports did not have a special relationship with Richardson that would cause a duty to exist. This relationship between Ports and Richardson would again be determined by Ports ability to control Richardson that would meaningfully reduce the risk of harm. Additionally, the accident did not occur on Ports' premises nor was Ports' property (vehicle) being used. Therefore, Ports was also not primarily liable for Barclay's injuries.

In discussing whether the long shift that caused Richardson's fatigue was sufficient to be a special circumstance, the Court relied on other cases that have dealt with similar issues. The Court reasoned that there are many people who work long shifts (nurses, police officers, doctors, etc.) and that to require employers to monitor every aspect of an employee's life that may exacerbate fatigue caused by work would create an incredible burden on employers. This burden was not one the Court was willing to inflict on employers as a whole.