November 25, 2013

PLF argues employers aren't responsible for employees' purely personal conduct

By Anastasia P. Boden Attorney

A woman ends her shift, puts on yoga clothes, and leaves work.  She plans to stop for some frozen yogurt before heading to yoga class.  But as she drives to the yogurt shop, she hits a motorcyclist.  Is the employer on the hook for the motorcyclist’s injuries?  You might think not, since she wasn’t running an errand for work or acting as an employee when the accident occurred.  But in a decision issued in September, the California Court of Appeals said otherwise.  It held that because the woman was required to take her car to work, and because her purely personal errands were foreseeable to her employer, the employer should have to pay for the accident she caused.  This is just the latest in California’s seemingly endless series of court decisions that force employers to bear heavy economic burdens, and as a consequence kills jobs, stifle economic innovation, and drive up the cost of living.

Last week, Pacific Legal Foundation filed this amicus brief urging the California Supreme Court to review the decision in Moradi v. Marsh.  We argue that employers should not be liable for their employees’ purely personal conduct, which has no relationship to their job, even if such conduct is “foreseeable” to the employer.

The theory of supervisor liability is based on the notion that if a worker does something at the request of an employer, any harms that result should be compensated by the employer.  But that common sense notion was never meant to force employers to foot the bill for everything an employee does, even when off the clock.  Courts have already said that employers not liable for accidents that occur on an employee’s commute, because the employer makes no demand as to how their employees gets to work, and the commute itself primarily benefits the employees by allowing them to live where they want.  But under the “required-vehicle exception,” employers are liable for accidents that occur during the commute if the employer has required the employee to bring her vehicle to work.  This exception makes sense because the employer has instructed the employee to make the car available, so the commute becomes part of the work relationship.  But where employees leave their commute for personal reasons, the justification for holding employers liable no longer holds.  California courts have disagreed about just how far an employee may deviate from her commute before the employer is no longer liable for her actions, but not one court has imposed liability in a case like this, where the employee’s activity is so far removed from her work.

Imposing liability on the employer under such circumstances is a bad idea.  Courts usually force businesses to compensate people harmed by their employees in order to encourage employers to take precautions and prevent accidents.  But to stop employees from running personal errands on their way home would require employers to impose stringent and intrusive rules on workers during off-duty hours, rules that would invade employees’ privacy.  In the past, progressives saw such off-the-job monitoring by employers as a bad thing, and that’s one reason California’s Constitution guarantees an explicit right to privacy not just from the government, but even from private snooping.  What’s more, California law already makes it likely that victims will be compensated, since it requires all drivers to carry liability insurance.

California courts have applied the required-vehicle exception in conflicting ways, but Moradi v. Marsh departs from all existing precedent.  Hopefully the California Supreme Court will take up this case to clarify the required-vehicle exception and restore the proper level of supervisor liability.

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