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Tennessee Court Clarifies Employer’s Potential Liability in Car Accident Cases

There are different types of liability that may arise from a car accident. For example, if you are hit by a car, you can sue the other driver for direct negligence. If the driver was operating a vehicle on behalf of his or her employer, you can also sue that employer under what is known as the doctrine of respondeat superior. This holds a person or company vicariously liable for the acts of their agents.

Appeals Court Sides With Victim in Daycare Van Accident

But can you also sue the employer for direct negligence? The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently addressed this question. The case involves a child who was struck by a van owned by a daycare center. The child’s mother sued the driver and the daycare center owner in Tennessee state court, accusing all defendants of direct negligence. More specifically, the mother accused the employer of negligence in their “failure to screen, train, and test” the employee who drove the van.

The daycare center conceded that it was vicariously liable for any negligent acts of the driver. Based on this admission, the daycare center further claimed it could not be liable for any direct negligence. In effect, the admission of vicarious liability should “preempt” any direct negligence claim.

This might sound like a legal technicality but it is important. Although an employer who admits vicarious liability is considered 100 percent responsible for an employee’s negligence, a direct negligence claim against the employer may establish a victim’s right to punitive damages, which the plaintiffs in this case are seeking. To that end, the plaintiff encouraged the court to reject the defendants’ proposed preemption rule and allow a jury to decide if there was direct negligence.

The trial court sided with the defendants, but on appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed in favor of the plaintiff. The appeals court said this was the first time a Tennessee court had addressed this particular issue. The court also noted that other states that had considered this same question were “fairly even split” on the answer.

Ultimately, the Tennessee court said the daycare center’s “proposed preemption rule is not in accord with our system of comparative fault and thereby inconsistent with existing Tennessee jurisprudence.” In other words, a jury should be allowed to apportion fault between the employer’s personal negligent acts and the employee’s negligent acts for which the employer is vicariously liable. While this does not affect the total amount of compensatory damages a plaintiff receives, “removing an employer from the fault apportionment process subjects other defendants to potentially assume a greater percentage of liability than they would otherwise be assigned if the jury were able to consider the alleged fault of the employer.”

Get Advice from a Knoxville Car Accident Attorney

The Tennessee Court of Appeals’ decision is good news for car accident victims who seek to hold employers responsible for their own negligence in addition to the acts of their drivers. If you have been in a car accident and need legal advice from a Tennessee personal injury lawyer on how to proceed, contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville today.

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