Suing The Employee’s Boss: When Does Respondeat Superior Apply in California Personal Injury Lawsuits?

In Delgado v. Las Lomas Spanish Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a woman in a car crashed into a bike rider. The woman had just finished preaching door-to-door as a Jehovah’s Witness. She was a member of the religion and the Bancroft Congregation, which shared its Kingdom Hall with other congregations, including Las Lomas Congregation.

This ruling by this California appellate court is an unpublished opinion, meaning it is only binding on the case which they ruled. Although the ruling is unpublished, it does illustrate the rules when suing the employer of an employee.

Members of the religion engage in field service, which involves preaching door-to-door and distributing religious literature. While performing field service, members don’t ask for donations, although they can accept them. The congregation was made up of elders, ministerial servants, pioneers, and publishers. The last were rank and file members. Pioneers were an appointed volunteer position with slightly more hours in preaching work than publishers. Watchtower was the publisher of the religion’s written materials and, prior to the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses overseeing the governing body, was the managing entity.

On the date of the collision, the driver and three female members of the Bancroft Congregation met with a plan to perform field service. They went to the territory where they would preach. Other congregation members were also doing field service. The driver drove to the neighborhood. At around 9:45, they started preaching. After 90 minutes, they were done for the day. They chatted for a while, and the driver offered to take the others to Burger King for lunch and drive them home afterward. While on their way to Burger King, the car collided with the bicyclist. They waited for a police officer and then went to eat.

The bike rider settled with the driver and then sued two Jehovah’s Witness entities: Watchtower Bible and Las Lomas Spanish Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He argued that the two entities were liable for the driver’s negligence under a theory of respondeat superior. Under this doctrine, a principal can be held liable for an agent’s negligence as long as the negligence happens in the course and scope of the agency. It is most often used in an employment context, whereby an employer is held liable for an employee’s negligence.

A third religious entity appeared by consent. Together, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The motion was granted on the grounds that the driver was not the defendant’s agent and that she wasn’t acting in the course and scope of agency at the time of the collision. The plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court explained that, even assuming there was an agency relationship, the driver in this case was acting outside the course and scope of her agency. A principal cannot be held liable for an agent’s negligence once the work is completed, except in certain circumstances. Under the going and coming rule, when an agent is traveling to or from the workplace, the agency relationship is suspended, and the agent’s actions are not conducted within the scope of agency as a matter of law. In this case, the accident happened after she was done working for the day.

The plaintiff argued that the case wasn’t barred by the going and coming rule because the driver’s actions came within the required vehicle exception. This exception applies when the use of a personal vehicle is an express or implied condition of working at a particular place.

The plaintiff relied on a wrongful death case in which a Catholic priest was temporarily living in California to serve the needs of Basque Catholics. While driving back to Fresno after ministering to a family in a nearby city, he crashed into another vehicle, resulting in the death of those in the other vehicle. The heirs won in a wrongful death suit against the Bishop, since the priest had been acting in the course and scope of his agency with the Bishop. His work on the date of the accident was of incidental benefit to the Bishop, and he had to use his car to accomplish the ministerial work.

The appellate court explained that in contrast to the wrongful death action, in this case, the driver’s vehicle wasn’t an express or an implied condition of doing field service, and most members of the congregation didn’t own a motor vehicle. The judgment was affirmed.

Whether you are bringing a lawsuit for injuries you’ve suffered or because you’ve lost a loved one in a wrongful death, it is important to retain an attorney that understands all possible theories of recovery. If you’ve suffered injuries or a loved one has died due to someone else’s negligence in Modesto, the Bogan Law Firm may be able to represent you in a personal injury lawsuit for damages. Contact us at (209) 565-3425 or via our online form.

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