Unfavorable Ruling From Louisiana Supreme Court on Employer Independent Negligence

The Louisiana Supreme Court rendered its decision in Martin v. Thomas et al, regarding independent negligence claims against defendant employers. The Supreme Court held that pursuant to the relevant Louisiana Civil Code articles, a personal injury plaintiff may maintain an action against the defendant employer for its independent fault for negligent hiring, training, supervision and/or retention of the employee who caused the accident.

In trucking cases, the plaintiff often alleges the different negligent acts of the truck driver such as failure to yield, illegal lane change, careless operation, speeding, or illegal left turn. The defendant truck driver is typically operating the 18-wheeler or delivery truck while working in the course and scope of her employment with a trucking company; in that scenario, the trucking company is legally responsible to pay any judgment obtained by the plaintiff, based on its vicarious liability for the negligence of its truck driver. The doctrine of vicarious liability, also referred to as respondeat superior, is codified in Article 2320 of the Louisiana Civil Code. If the truck driver was on the job for the employer and the truck driver was negligent and caused an accident and damages, then the trucking company/employer is liable to the plaintiff for those damages.

In recent years, plaintiffs also began alleging that the trucking company was also liable for its independent acts of negligence; plaintiffs commonly allege that the trucking company had negligently hired, retained, supervised and/or trained the truck driver, and that the company’s independent negligence was also the cause of the accident. With the allegations of independent negligence, the plaintiff seeks to recover from the trucking company based not only on its liability for the negligence of its driver, but also for the trucking company’s own acts of negligence.

In Martin, the plaintiff was injured in an accident with an 18-wheeler hauling logs. The defendant logging company admitted that its driver Thomas was in the course and scope of his employment with them; on that basis, the Defendants won a partial summary judgment in the trial court dismissing Mr. Martin’s claims of independent negligence for the company’s negligent hiring, supervision, training, retention, etc. of the defendant driver. The partial summary judgment was affirmed by the La. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal; at that time, the prevailing law based on Louisiana jurisprudence was that independent negligence claims against the employer were subsumed within the claims of negligence against the driver; those courts all reasoned that if the employer admitted that the driver was in the course and scope of his employment, then there was no separate claim against the company for its alleged negligent hiring, training, supervision or retention; any negligence of the company was subsumed within the driver’s negligence. Also, if the defendant driver was not negligent, then she did not cause the plaintiff’s injuries/damages, and any supposed independent negligent acts of the employer would not be relevant.

In Martin, the La. Supreme Court overturned that line of cases unequivocally. The Court seized upon the Louisiana Civil Code article 2324, which mandates that each person’s negligence must be considered, “…regardless of such other person’s insolvency, ability to pay, degree of fault, immunity by statute or otherwise, including but not limited to immunity as provided in R.S. 23:1032, or that the other person’s identity is not known or reasonably ascertainable.”  Therefore, plaintiffs may now sue the truck driver for her negligence, for which her employer remains vicariously liable, AND the plaintiffs may sue the trucking company/employer for its alleged independent acts of negligence for failing to properly hire, train, supervise and/or retain the truck driver. At trial, the jury verdict form will include a line for the employer,  unless independent negligence claims have been dismissed via partial summary judgment prior to trial.

The effect of the Martin decision remains to be seen, but could have a significant impact on the defense of cases. The plaintiffs’ bar has seemed intent on placing blame on the trucking company for acts of its drivers such as pulling out from a stop sign when it was not clear to do so.  One can argue that the truck driver who did not properly yield or stop at a stop sign learned not to do that when she got her first driver’s license at the age 16, and long before she obtained her CDL. Yet, plaintiffs will say  that blowing the stop sign was the fault of the trucking company for not properly training her.  Companies who are potential defendants in personal injury lawsuits would be well served to review their existing safety programs and policies, and to make sure that those rules and policies are well documented.

For additional background on this case, please see the following article by Gerard Dragna:

Significant Ruling on Employer Independent Negligence Anticipated from Louisiana Supreme Court >