The team at Dodson Parker Behm & Capparella, PC shares updates and thoughts on developments in the law.

Employer Not Responsible For Injuries to Employee Who Was Sent Home For Suspicion of Drug Use

February 10, 2017

In a negligent entrustment action, the employer’s ability to control the employee when he leaves the premises is the essential issue. Knowledge of the employee’s incompetency is also important.  Here, the facts didn’t establish that the employer was at fault. 

Background

Plaintiff Christopher Dylan Thompson filed a negligent entrustment alleging that Best Buy was “negligent in allowing him to leave the store’s premises in an inebriated state.”

Shortly after being forced to end a shift early from Best Buy (“Defendant”), Thompson crashed his car into a median wall and subsequently hit a nearby pickup truck, totaling both cars. The reporting officer stated that the front left tire exhibited a large slit, consistent with either a blown tire or hitting the median wall. Thompson states that he ingested at least three doses of a liquid drug, which he refers to as estazolam, that he ordered off the internet on the “grey market,” before entering his place of employment. Thompson states that this led to the accident, and that the Defendant was aware of Thompson’s condition.

Thompson’s assistant manager, Cory Blake Howell, testified that himself and another coworker noticed that Thompson was “slow, tired, and not very responsive” while on his shift. After observing this behavior, Howell told Thompson not to operate heavy machinery and to instead end his shift early to go home. Contrast to the reports of assistant manager Howell, Officer Sharp did not observe any behaviors or other indications that Thompson was under the influence at the time of the accident. He stated that Thompson communicated normally and that he would have allowed Thompson to continue driving if it were possible. However, after the report concluded, a female, unknown to both Thompson and his mother, took Thompson to his mother’s home. After Thompson’s mother saw Thompson “stumbling, ‘not making any sense, [and] talking out of his head,’” she admitted Thompson into a mental health institute where he stayed for several days.

Following discovery, the trial court granted Defendant’s summary judgment, holding that the Defendant did not have a duty to prevent Thompson from leaving Best Buy in his vehicle, and that no evidence was presented that proved the Defendant contributed to, caused, or condoned Thompson’s condition. According to the trial court, Thompson’s actions represent the ultimate result and cause of the accident. Moreover, the accident did not “occur” on the premises of the Defendant since Thompson was no longer at Best Buy or working a shift.

The trial court also held that because Thompson was no longer working at Best Buy that day, the Defendant did not have control over Thompson. In addition, no evidence was presented that the Defendant told Thompson to drive himself from the premises. Furthermore, Officer Sharp’s statements regarding Thompson’s appearance and demeanor at the scene influenced the trial court’s decision due to the fact that Thompson did not provide additional evidence proving that the accident occurred specifically from his impairment.

In regards to the entrustment claim, the trial court held that the Defendant did not exercise any control over or have a right to control the vehicle in which Thompson owned. The trial court reasoned that “[a] negligent entrustment cause of action requires the defendant to supply a chattel to an incompetent user,” and “‘[n]egligent entrustment is committed at the moment when control of the chattel is relinquished by an entrustor to an incompetent user.’” (citing West v. E. Tenn. Pioneer Oil Co., 172 S.W.3d 545, 555 (Tenn. 20015)). Plaintiff Thompson appealed.

Ruling

The issue on appeal was whether the Defendant is liable for negligent entrustment, when the Defendant knew of Thompson’s inability to operate heavy machinery and to communicate with customers and co-workers, but allowed Thompson to leave his place of employment.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order granting the motion for summary judgment. The Court followed Lett v. Collis Foods, Inc., 60 S.W.3d 95 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001) and Williams v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., 832 F.Supp.2d 923 (E.D. Tenn. 2011), which provided that employers do not have a duty to either a third party individual or an employee to prevent impaired employees from driving home in their own vehicles. The employer in Lett did not have control over the employee in regards to preventing the employee from driving intoxicated once off of the premises and relinquished from her duty at work. In Lett, the employer did not “contribute to, condone, or seek to accommodate [the employee’s] intoxication.” Moreover, the employer did not “require [the employee] to drive home.” The Court stated that these facts matched the case at hand, and concluded that the Defendant “had no legal duty to prevent plaintiff from voluntarily getting in his car and leaving his workplace under the undisputed circumstances.”

Furthermore, the Court held that the Defendant was not liable under the claim of negligent entrustment due to the fact that the vehicle Thompson drove was not under the control of the Defendant, either through owning the vehicle or forcing the employee to drive the vehicle. The Court looked to West v. E. Tenn. Pioneer Oil Co., 172 S.W.3d 545 (Tenn. 2005) for guidance on this ruling. The chattel at issue in this case is the vehicle that belonged to Plaintiff Thompson; and therefore, did not constitute “entrustment” from the employer. Thus, the Court held that Thompson was unable to meet the prima facie case of control for negligent entrustment, and affirmed the order granting summary judgment.

Commentary 

This case prevents defendant employers from being held liable for injuries that occur subsequently from employee’s decisions to 1) attend work under the influence of drugs or alcohol and 2) drive under the influence of drugs and alcohol after being sent home.

However, the defendant employer in this case argued that heavy machinery and automobiles do not require the same capabilities in order to operate them. This case presented a very close question in our view. The Plaintiff was unresponsive and deemed incapable of operating the heavy machinery; thus, the Plaintiff would be unable to stay alert and responsive while driving. Since the law states that a person must conform to a reasonable person standard of care for the protection against unreasonable risks of harm, the employer should at least take reasonable precautions to prevent the person, whom they are no longer allowing to work, from subjecting the surrounding community to unreasonable risks of harm.

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