As we have mentioned in previous posts, the issue of liability in a Florida car accident often extends beyond the drivers involved to include third parties like manufacturers and, as the Fourth District Court of Appeal explains in Carroll Air Systems v. Greenbaum, a negligent driver’s employer.
Ms. Greenbaum’s son was killed in a 1985 car accident outside of Ft. Lauderdale when the car in which he was riding was struck by a vehicle driven by John Mills. Mills’ car was traveling at somewhere between 86 and 97 miles in a 45 mile per hour zone at the time and ran a stop sign when the crash occurred.
Mills was on his way home to Plantation after attending a dinner dance related to a regional meeting of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, Inc. (ASHRAE). Mills and a number of other Carroll Air Systems salesmen, whose expenses were paid by the company, attended the three-day meeting as well as the dinner. He was drinking with colleagues and clients on the night of the accident and his blood alcohol content “was consistent with having consumed between eight and thirteen one-ounce drinks,” according to the court.
Mills was convicted of criminal charges related to the accident and sentenced to jail time. Greenbaum sued Carroll Air, alleging that the company was vicariously liable for the accident because it encouraged its salesmen to drink with clients and knew or should have known that Mills was drunk and shouldn’t have been driving on the night in question. All of the other Carroll Air employees attending the meeting stayed at a hotel on site, while Mills opted to stay at his home. After trial, a jury sided with Greenbaum, finding the company liable for $880,000 in compensatory ($80,000) and punitive ($800,000) damages.
The Fourth District affirmed the decision on appeal, finding ample evidence that Mills was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the fatal accident. “Carroll Air told its employees to attend ASHRAE functions because of their business benefits, and several company employees were at this particular regional meeting, including Mr. Carroll, the president,” the court explained. In addition to paying his expenses for the meeting, the company also covered car expenses, such as mileage. Finally, the company encouraged social interaction at meetings and the like as an integral part of obtaining and keeping clients. The company even deducted drink purchases as business expenses.
While the court acknowledged that other courts nationwide have reached different conclusions in similar circumstances, it nevertheless said there are important public policy reasons for holding the company liable. Citing the California Court of Appeals’ 1981 decision in Harris v. Trojan Fireworks, the court explained that the theory of vicarious liability is intended to spread the economic cost of “risk incident to enterprise.”
The court further concluded that the punitive damages award was appropriate here because the company itself was directly negligent due to its actual or constructive knowledge that Mills was drunk and should not have been driving.
Employer responsibility is just one of the potential issues that can arise following an accident. If you or someone you love has been injured in a car accident, the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Anidjar & Levine are ready to investigate your case and represent you in and out of the courtroom. We serve clients throughout the region, including in Ft. Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Coral Springs. Call us toll-free at 800-747-3733 or fill out and submit an online Contact Us form to schedule a free consultation.
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