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Who’s Responsible? Negotiating The Maze Of Employee Driving Liability

Employers whose workers drive on work-related errands are often confused about liability issues.  For instance, if an employee goes to buy office supplies in his own car and takes a detour afterwards to visit a friend and hits a pedestrian, are you liable for damages?  You might be surprised to find out that the answer is yes, you are legally responsible.  In another example, if a worker on a non-business-related trip has an accident, you’re not liable, even if they’re driving a company car.

If you’re bewildered about the rationale behind these examples, don’t feel bad – the rules for employee/employer liability are confusing and complicated, whether you operate a company fleet or have a couple of workers who occasionally run company-related errands. 

The above examples contain important distinctions, which in legal jargon are known as ‘detours’ and ‘frolics’.  In the first example, the employee detoured from the job-related errand, in the second example; he frolicked on a trip that was unrelated to his job, even though he was driving a company car.  These distinctions can cost a company significant sums when it comes to paying out accident-related damages.

Muddying the waters even more when it comes to figuring out liability is the fact that states have varying laws on employer/employee driving liability.  Some stipulate that if an employee is in an accident in a company car, the employer is responsible, regardless of whether the trip was work-related.

Proper screening of workers driving records is another issue of concern for employers.  You might not think it would be necessary if the employee is doing minimal work-related driving, but you’d be wrong.  Let’s say that twice a week you require an employee to deliver documents to an office across town. During one of these trips, she has an accident that kills someone and it turns out that she’s had numerous driving offenses of which you were unaware because you never screened her records.  Because it’s the employer’s responsibility to conduct background checks to ensure that employees can safely carry out their jobs, you can be held responsible for negligence.

A recent issue of employer liability is distracted driving.  In some cases, employers can be held liable for employee accidents caused by cell phone use, if they’ve created a work environment where constant communication is expected of employees.  They can also be held responsible if they’ve issued cell phones to employees.

What can you do as an employer to minimize the risk of liability from employee driving?  Create a clear policy on safe driving practices – including cell phone use – and have each employee sign it.  Also, make sure you check the driving record of any new hire if you think they’re ever going to go on work-related errands. 

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