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Establishing “Vicarious Liability” for a Tennessee Truck Accident


Determining who is responsible in a personal injury case is not always obvious. If you are in a car accident, for example, you certainly want to hold the negligent driver accountable. But if that driver was operating a vehicle owned by her employer, and she was performing a work-related task at the time of the accident, then the employer is also legally responsible for your injuries.

Which Subcontractors Are Liable for an Accident?

In legal terms, a principal’s responsibility for the acts of their agent is called “vicarious liability.” This is a type of strict liability. In other words, it does not matter if the employer or principal committed any independent negligent act. The employee or agent’s negligence is sufficient to hold the principal accountable.

But how far does vicarious liability extend? Consider this recent case from here in Tennessee. The plaintiff, a man working at a highway construction site, was permanently injured when he was struck by a truck. The truck was owned by a company that we will identify here as “Subcontractor A.”

As is often the case with major construction projects, there are multiple contractor-subcontractor relationships at work. Here, the plaintiff sued not only Subcontractor A, but also Subcontractor B, which hired Subcontractor A, and Subcontractor C, which in turn hired Subcontractor B. (The plaintiff’s employer was the actual general contractor that hired Subcontractor C.)

The plaintiff sued all three subcontractors, alleging each was vicariously liable for his injuries. Subcontractors B and C moved for summary judgment, arguing that only Subcontractor A could be held liable since it was the entity that employed the driver who negligently struck the plaintiff. The plaintiff, in response, argued Subcontractors B and C still had the “right to control” the work of Subcontractor A, and therefore they could be held liable.

The courts ruled in favor of Subcontractors B and C. The Tennessee Court of Appeals, upholding a trial judge’s earlier ruling granting summary judgment, said that an employer is, generally speaking, not vicariously liable for the acts of “independent contractors” it hires, only employees. Of course, that raises the question of how to distinguish between an independent contractor and an employee.

This is determined, the appeals court noted, by “examining the agreement between the parties and the facts of the particular case.” Here, the language of the agreements between Subcontractor A and the other two subcontractors did not specify an employment or independent contractor relationship either way. However, the Court said the “uncontroverted evidence only supports the conclusion” that Subcontractor A was in an independent contractor relationship. Given that, the plaintiff had no case against Subcontractors B or C.

Need Help From a Tennessee Car Accident Attorney?

Not every case is so cut-and-dry. Untangling the web of corporate responsibility is often a major part of investigating a personal injury claim. An experienced Knoxville truck accident lawyer can help you in identifying the employers or businesses who are legally liable for your injuries and make sure you receive the compensation you deserve. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, if you need to speak with a lawyer right away.



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