Employers Have A Legal Duty To Verify Employees Are Qualified to Drive
A California Court of Appeals recently held that both employers and vehicle owners are liable for negligent hiring and entrustment absent a reasonable inquiry into a driver’s qualifications if an accident occurs. This decision stresses the importance of conducting a suitable background check on all employees in order to avoid unnecessary litigation.
In this case, an accident arose after a vehicle struck an individual who was legally crossing the street. The truck, which ran a red light, belonged to a construction company, and its employee who was driving it had no driver’s license or auto insurance coverage. The owner of the company had currently employed the individual driving the truck to perform work on their own home.
In employing the worker who allegedly claimed to have a valid contractor’s license and arrived in a personal vehicle, the employer never inquired into whether they had a driver’s license. The employee never volunteered the information or the three previous convictions for driving under the influence, either.
In response, the victim filed a lawsuit against both the construction company and its owner, alleging negligent hiring and negligence to the entrustment of the truck. California does recognize common law torts, including both negligent hiring and entrustment. The tort of negligent entrustment would create civil liability for the owner of the vehicle if they knew or should have known that they were entrusting the vehicle to someone unfit to drive it. Similarly, the tort of negligent hiring would establish liability for the employer if they knew or should have known that hiring the employee would create a particular hazard that resulted in actual harm.
In addition to these, there is criminal liability for essentially the same acts as well. For instance, Cal. Veh Code § 14604 forbids a vehicle owner from permitting another to operate their vehicle absent a driver’s license. The statute also provides that the vehicle owner must only make a reasonable effort to ascertain whether an individual is in possession of a valid driver’s license. In turn, Cal. Veh. Code § 14606 forbids employers from employing or knowingly permitting any individual to operate a motor vehicle absent a valid license.
The employer, in this case, filed a motion for summary adjudication for the claim of negligent entrustment, alleging a lack of evidence for knowing that the individual was unlicensed. The owner of the company made a similar motion for the claim of negligent hiring, alleging that there was no reason to believe the employee was incompetent. The lower court granted both of these motions, however on appeal, the decision was reversed.
The appeals court found that the duty to establish whether an individual is licensed prior to permitting them to operate a vehicle does, in fact, exist. In order for a plaintiff to succeed in their claims of negligence, all that is necessary is to establish that the defendant did not conduct a reasonable inquiry as required by the California Vehicle Code.
What this means for employers is that it is crucial to conduct appropriate and thorough pre-employment screening on all individuals to ensure their qualifications. Not performing reasonable inquiries opens employers to considerable liability for harm resulting from the actions of their employees that could have been prevented by a thorough background check.