Tennessee Courts Consider When a Party Can Be Held Liable For an Agent’s Negligence

In most situations, an individual can only be responsible for his or her own negligent actions.  However, under certain principles known as “agency” laws, individuals or entities who are the employers, bosses, or superiors of another person may sometimes be responsible for the actions of their agent. Principals may be responsible for their agents only when they exert a certain level of control over them.  This is usually a legal determination that must be made by a court. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals looks at whether the negligent actions of a truck driver could be attributed to the larger shipping company that contracted with the driver.

In Bowman v. Bennouttas et al.Ms. Bowman was injured after she was involved in a multi-vehicle accident on a highway. A tractor-trailer driven by Mounir Benouttas collided with her vehicle, and Ms. Bowman alleged that Mr. Benouttas was acting negligently when he was driving the truck at the time.  Ms. Bowman brought claims not only against Mr. Benouttas but also against AllStates Trucking, Inc., and MGR Freight Systems, Inc.  MGR contracted with Mr. Benouttas to drive the truck, and AllStates coordinated the hauling of shipments with MGR.  Ms. Bowman alleged that Mr. Benouttas was acting as an agent of  both MGR and AllStates when he caused the accident, and accordingly they were vicariously liable for her injuries.  AllStates immediately filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Mr. Benouttas was not an agent of AllStates and AllStates did not have a contractual relationship with Mr. Benouttas because he was hired by MGR.  It also noted that MGR’s contractual relationship with drivers stated that they worked as independent contractors for the company. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, finding that Ms. Bowman had not shown that AllStates had an agency relationship with Mr. Benouttas. Ms. Bowman appealed.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recognized that principals can be held vicariously liable for the negligent actions of their agents when such actions occur during the scope of employment.  However, principals are not liable for the actions of independent contractors.  Here, the court looked at whether Mr. Benouttas was more appropriately considered an independent contractor or an agent. While it acknowledged that a variety of factors may be considered when addressing such a question, the court looked primarily at whether the principal has the right to control the conduct of the agent. While Ms. Bowman argued that AllStates could exert control over Mr. Benouttas because it reserved the right to provide MGR’s drivers with specific instructions, to select the equipment they would use, and to monitor their progress, the Tennessee court disagreed that this was sufficient for agency.

It noted that, in this case, Mr. Benouttas had never met or communicated with AllStates, and AllStates had not directed Mr. Benouttas’ work, picked his equipment, or kept in contact with him. Moreover, although AllStates sometimes worked with MGR, it operated independently of MGR, did not pay MGR’s drivers, and was not involved in the hiring or firing of drivers.  Finally, the court relied on the existing contract between Mr. Benouttas and MGR, which stated that Mr. Benouttas’ role as a driver was an independent contractor position, rather than an employee position. Based on all of these facts, the court held that AllStates did not control Mr. Benouttas’ employment, and thus Mr. Benouttas was not an agent of MGR.

In many situations, it may be appropriate to hold an employer liable for the actions of an employee. The employer may have allowed the employee to operate unsafe equipment, may have encouraged dangerous work conditions, or may have knowingly hired employees who were not qualified for their job.  When this happens, it is important that employers be held responsible. However, when an individual is simply an independent contractor, is hired to perform a brief duty, or has not contracted with the employer in any direct fashion, vicarious liability may be inappropriate.  An experienced negligence attorney like Tennessee truck accident attorney Eric Beasley can assist you in determining an approach to litigating with an employer. For more information on seeking redress and compensation for your injuries, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Immunity From Personal Injury Claims for Contractors – Black v. Dixie, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, September 7, 2016.

Immunity from Personal Injury for Tennessee Ski Resorts, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, April 27, 2016.

The Complexities of Bringing Personal Injury Claims Against Large Corporations in Tennessee, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, March 10, 2016