Arizona Appellate Court Confirms Scope of Employment is a Matter for the Jury, Unless Clearly Undisputed

Author: Leah McKeever

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July 2, 2021 9:00am

 

The Arizona Appellate Court recently issued a decision overturning a motion for summary judgment, confirming whether an employee is within the scope of employment, for purposes of vicarious liability, is an issue for the jury, unless the facts are clearly undisputed.i

 

Background

Martin Montano (“Montano”), an employee of Casa Custom Floor Care, LLC (“Casa”), was driving to Casa’s main office to punch and correct his timecard when he ran a red light, causing a collision with Samantha Cravens’ vehicle. Unfortunately, Samantha Cravens died as a result of the Michael Cravens (“Cravens”), Samantha Cravens’ spouse, brought an action of wrongful death, negligence, negligence per se, and vicarious liability against Casa.

Casa filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting Montano was not within the scope and course of his employment at the time of the collision. Craven opposed the motion and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, contending Casa was vicariously liable for Montano’s negligence as a matter of law. The trial court granted Casa’s motion for summary judgment, finding, based on the undisputed facts, Montano was not under Casa’s control at the time of the accident. Craven’s motion for reconsideration was denied and the appeal followed. The appeal asserted the record, at a minimum, demonstrates a question of fact on the issue of whether Montano acted in the course and scope of his employment and requested the Court conclude Montano was acting in the course and scope of his employment as a matter of law. In contrast, Casa asserted it did not have requisite control over Montano at the time of the accident; therefore, summary judgment was warranted.

The court determined, “An employer is ‘vicariously liable for the negligent work-related actions of its employees’ who are acting within scope of their employment at the time of an accident.”ii In making this statement, the court affirmed previous law regarding vicarious liability. But the court’s ruling established more than an affirmation of previous law: the court also established the burden of proof in such cases, stating, “Unless the undisputed facts indicate the conduct was clearly outside the scope of employment, whether an employee’s tort is within the scope of employment…is a question of fact for the jury.”iii By holding an employee’s conduct must be “clearly”iv outside the scope of an employee’s work, the court in this case construed the law of vicarious liability more strictly than many courts have in the past. Further clarifying, the court held, “An employee acts within the scope of employment when performing work assigned by the employer or engages in a course of conduct subject to the employers’ control.”v

The Restatement sets forth factors to evaluate whether an employee is acting within the scope of employment, including whether the actions took place on company premises, were directly commanded by the employer, or were necessary to accomplish directives provided by the employer.vi This standard, as established by the court, is incredibly broad and potentially encompasses many employee actions which may not have been directly condoned by the employer. Thus, Casa had a high burden in this case to prove its employee’s actions were clearly outside the scope of his employment.

 

Holding

The Appellate Court found Montano’s actions were not “clearly” outside the scope of his employment with Casa creating a genuine issue of material fact. Specifically, the testimony related to whether Casa employees were required to go to the Casa office at the end of the day; whether Montano intended to go directly from the jobsite to the Casa office; whether Casa required Montano to correct his timesheet; and whether he was being paid at the time of the accident. Since conflicting testimony existed on the foregoing, the Court found these issues demonstrated genuine issues of material fact. Therefore, the Court vacated the trial court’s ruling in Casa’s favor and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. Further, the Court denied Cravens’ request for sanctions in the form of attorneys’ fees for extensive motion practice on this issue because the case involved contested facts and neither side was entitled to summary judgment.

 

Takeaway

Unless the undisputed facts specifically demonstrate the employee’s conduct was clearly outside the scope of employment, the question whether the employee’s negligent act is within the scope of employment for vicarious liability, is a question for the jury.

 

i Cravens v. Montano, No. 2 CA-CV 2020-0115, 2021 WL 2105425 (Ariz. Ct. App. May 25, 2021).

ii Id. at *2.

iii Id.

iv Id.

v Id. citing Restatement (Third) of Agency § 7.07(2) (2006).

vi See Restatement (Second) of Agency § 229(2) (1958).

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