If you’re injured in a car accident caused by another person’s negligence, you are likely entitled to a legal remedy. But as the District Court for the Middle District of Florida explained in Williams v. Benway, first you need to know who to sue.
Anthony Williams was injured in an accident when his motorcycle was struck by a car driven by Kathleen Benway somewhere between Orlando and Bradenton. Benway, an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, was traveling on business when the accident occurred. Specifically, she had traveled to Orlando from D.C. to conduct an investigation on a Thursday and was scheduled to conduct an interview in Tampa the following Monday. Over the weekend, she had planned to stay with her mother in Bradenton.
Williams sued Benway for negligence. After certifying that Benway was acting within the scope of her employment at the time of the action, the United States was be substituted as a defendant in the action. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the U.S. “assumes liability for a tort that a federal government employee commits while acting within the scope of employment, as determined under the law of the state where the tort occurred,” the Court explained. Williams then filed a motion for reconsideration, claiming that Benway is the appropriate defendant because she was acting outside of her employment for vicarious liability purposes under Florida law.
The Court denied Williams’ motion, finding that the U.S. was the proper defendant in the action. Noting that “[t]he liability of an employer for an injury caused by a traveling employee driving a vehicle at the employer’s instruction began with horse-drawn carriages and applied immediately to automobiles,” the Court said that an exception to such liability arises where the employee deviates from the employer’s business. Citing its 2006 decision in Howland v. Hertz. Corp., the Court further stated that “[a]n employee who negligently injures a bystander while traveling for the employer acts within the scope of employment, unless the injury occurred during a distinct departure or a routine commute.”
In this case, Benway traveled to Florida for her employer’s benefit. Because the business she was conducting was to take place over the course of more than one day, she necessarily also needed to travel toward accommodation. That she was headed to her mother’s home rather than a hotel did not mean that she was deviating from the business purpose of the trip, according to the Court.
The Court also rejected Williams’ claim that Benway deviated from the business purpose by being under the influence of alcohol before the accident occurred. Although Williams’ wife said that she smelled alcohol on Benway’s breath after the accident, Benway denied drinking before the accident and none of the three police officers who interviewed her determined that she was under the influence of alcohol. Even if Benway had consumed alcohol before the accident, the Court found that the U.S. would likely nevertheless be vicariously liable for her alleged negligence. “[A]lcohol rarely shrinks vicarious liability,” the Court stated.
The ruling was not just a meaningless decision on an esoteric procedural issue. Rather, because Williams did not submit an administrative claim to the FTC before filing the suit – a prerequisite to an FTCA action against the U.S. – the Court concluded that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the matter. As a result, the Court dismissed the action.
As this case makes clear, identifying the proper defendant in a car accident lawsuit can make or break a claim. If you were injured in a car accident, the experienced South Florida auto accident attorneys of Anidjar & Levine can help. Representing clients throughout South Florida, including in Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach, the attorneys at Anidjar & Levine have helped many car accident victims obtain the compensation they deserve. If you’ve been injured in a car, motorcycle, or truck accident, call toll-free at 800-747-3733 or submit an online Contact Us form to schedule a free consultation today.
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